After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in gray, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling
I was right on the verge of blissful slumber when the red dot flickered across my face, settling right in the middle of my forehead, jarring me from my restful state. What the ****? Straining to focus through my drowsiness, I could make out some manner of form standing to my side, a futuristic gun gripped in a small, pale hand. Aimed right at me, there was a lone beep followed by an equally unsettling metallic click. And then, much to my relief, it was withdrawn. “Thirty six degrees” purred the air stewardess with a robotic smile. And then she was gone with a swish of her red and yellow tie scarf, a faint trail of perfume hanging in the air. “No Swine flu for you then” chuckled S, rubbing my arm. And then she was asleep again, such was her ability.
“Welcome to Beijing Capital International Airport” announced a tinny female voice as we filed out into arrivals, our bodies weak from lack of sleep and the heaviness of our luggage. On touchdown there had been more Swine flu checks; a swat team of masked doctors going about their faceless work with a brisk mechanicalness. “Thank you, enjoy your stay”.
According to the Chinese government, a dubious source of information at the best of times, Beijingers could expect up to two hundred and fifty clean air days a year. But peering out the taxi window as we hurtled down the motorway, it was glaringly obvious that this wasn’t one of them. The skyscrapers that flashed by were enveloped in a deep grey haze, the afternoon sun a dim, dirty orange disc seemingly plonked into the sky. A dried egg yolk of a thing, a spent force. Our driver spoke not a word of English, but of course we’d anticipated this, providing him with the address of Leo Hostel. And oh was the journey a long one, our progress regularly stunted by bouts of bumper-to-bumper traffic. It felt like an age before we finally pulled up on the edge of our street, Dazhalan Xijie. Stepping out and unloading our luggage, I was horrified to discover that the entire road was under construction!
Our taxi melted into the smog as S and I stood surveying the miserable scene before us, cursing our luck that of all the streets in Beijing we had to go and choose this one. The road had basically been reduced to one massive trench; with an army of orange-vested workers striding back and forth carrying iron bars, digging holes, fiddling around with pipes. Amidst the chaos stood a lone supervisor, his hair slicked back to one side, white shirt, black tie, hands on hips, looking like he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. “How do you even walk down that?” whispered S. Watching the disorder in a state of disbelief, I soon realized it was possible to traverse the street via a comically narrow bed of wooden boards that had been strewn alongside the shop fronts. Not that we had a hope in hell of getting our luggage down there! “I’ll go and see if I can find Leo,” I announced hopefully. “Maybe I can bring someone back, we just need an extra pair of hands”.
So off I went, traipsing through mounds of rubble, tiptoeing over broken boarding, hopping over puddles of foul-smelling filth. Sections of the makeshift pathway consisted of little more than a single board, enforcing me into the role of tightrope walker; one false step and I’d have been down in a mud-pit with the labourers. Every now and then I’d have to perform the even trickier task of passing another pedestrian, one of us pressing ourselves up against a wall to allow the other to squeeze by. I’d been struggling on like this for a solid ten minutes when I started to wonder just how far down the hostel was. I hadn’t seen any building numbers, which left me completely in the dark as to my whereabouts. But then, just as I was starting to wonder if I’d perhaps missed it, I caught sight of a large red sign partly submerged in a pile of mud. Leo Hostel – we are open!
Scrambling over a wobbly wooden platform, I fell into reception where I was greeted by Sunny, a pretty young Chinese girl with black reading glasses and an alert smile. “Hello, you are welcome Leo Hostel!” Explaining my predicament, Sunny’s sunny disposition rapidly melted into genuine concern as she called in reinforcements. “Don’t worry, Noodles will help you!” I was just about to tell her that breakfast wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when a plump young Chinese man appeared in a red Leo Hostel T-shirt. He and Sunny engaged in a minute or two of fierce-sounding dialogue, the man nodding as he listened. Then he turned to face me with a wide smile and a firm handshake. “My name is Noodles” he laughed, “let’s go!”
Following him through a back kitchen past clattering pots and pans and chattering chefs, we emerged into a brick courtyard and out into a network of narrow hutongs. “Err… Noodles, where are we going?” “Shortcut!” he grinned as we took a left… two rights… another left… or maybe it was a right, I wasn’t sure. “Where are you from?” “Why you come China?” “Oh you teacher, you can help me improve my English!” Then we were back onto Nightmare Street, our alleyway wanderings having cut out a large chunk of the assault course. “This is pretty crazy Noodles!” I said, as we closed in on S, a nervous-looking dot in the distance. “Yes no good, but they work fast because government say must finish in three month. No finish in three month, no pay!” he cackled.
Introducing himself to S with another dose of Noodles charm, our hero grabbed the largest of our suitcases and together the three of us worked our way back down the quagmire. Cutting back into the hutong, we were met by another Leo rep, a morose teenager who seemed less than enthusiastic about having to assist us. “This is rice!” giggled Noodles, as his accomplice relieved me of another bag. “Noodles and rice, ha ha ha!!!” he howled, slapping me on the back. Scowling somewhat, head to the floor, Rice ploughed on ahead, clearly keen to get back to Leo. “Rice speak no English, very bad” tut-tutted Noodles.
S and I slept for a wonderful twelve hours that night and were ravenous by the time we got down to Leo’s café for breakfast. Settling into a cosy corner table, we were perusing the menus when who should walk in but our knight in shining armor, Mr. Noodles. “Ah teacher and lady!!!” he exclaimed, approaching our table. “Food here is good but please, don’t eat Noodles!!! Eat rice instead… ha ha ha!” Empowered by some surprisingly decent coffee and a round of banana pancakes, we quickly set to work on our Beijing exit plan. With teaching posts already secured through a city agency, the clock was now ticking on what would be a glorious four-week cross-country adventure! Keen to hit the road, I would have happily left that same day; but first we had to transfer our luggage over to Linda and Ivan, an English couple who’d very kindly agreed to look after our stuff while we were away. As friends of one of S’s cousins, they’d also invited us out for our first Beijing dinner!
With the whole day ahead of us, we decided to walk the five-kilometer route down to Beijing South Train Station to get tickets to the nearby city of Tianjin, the first stop on our trip. Bidding farewell to Noodles, Sunny and a scowling Rice at reception, we headed out into the thirty-five degree heat, another foggy day, the sun conspicuous in its absence. Getting away from our hellish road as fast as we could, our route took us through several expansive tourist-free residential areas. As anticipated, the city was exceptionally busy and noisy, a gray largely colorless concrete jungle soundtracked by the incessant honking of passing traffic.
People brushing past us in all directions, there was much to take in. A lady selling puppies from a rusty old cage, groups of ripped men swinging around on monkey bars in a metallic outdoor gym. We got more than a few looks from curious locals as we made our way. There was a high-pitched “helloooo!” from some giggling school children and plenty of cheerless staring, mostly from the elderly. One old sour-faced woman even took time out from her hobbling to openly gawp at us, standing just inches away from me, first checking out my shoes at great length, then eyeballing me with an uncompromising death stare. “Ni Hao!” I chirped hopefully, but she didn’t reply. As the day wore on it seemed to get hotter and hotter and we noticed that many Chinese men had a habit of rolling their T-shirts up to their chests, more often than not exposing an unsightly potbelly. Without wanting to seem openly disrespectful, it was hard not to laugh.
Here and there we’d have to cross mammoth four-lane roads, the green light giving us barely enough time to get over, several drivers revving and honking impatiently as we scampered to safety. A kilometer or so from the train station there was a small park where pairs of men battled each other at table tennis. One of the matches was particularly competitive, two bare-chested men who celebrated and mourned the passing of the points with great gusto. “Aaaaaagh!!!” screamed one of them after winning a prolonged rally, thumping the table victoriously with his fists. At first I thought he was angry! Then, to my surprise, they were calling me over to play. Thrusting his bat into my hand, the man who’d just lost the rally hopped over to a water fountain to refuel while I got my ass royally kicked by his friend. Ten minutes in the searing, smoggy heat proved more than enough for me, so I made my excuses, cajoled my new friend into a photo and S and I were back on our way.
When we finally rolled up at Beijing South, the damn thing was closed. We knew something wasn’t right the moment we began our approach through the station’s huge, deserted square. We were about halfway down when a posse of street kids sprinted over. One of them was barking at me in frenetic Chinese, stabbing a finger back at the station. “Yes, we know”.
Tired from the morning’s exertions, S suggested we take a taxi over to the main train station, which sounded like a great idea. There we joined the chaotic throng of bodies swarming in all directions, as we attempted to work out which ticket counter we needed. After much confusion, a whole lot of waiting and the palpable discomfort of having the person behind me hanging over my shoulder, his hot breath on my neck, we emerged victorious; the proud owners of two train tickets to Tianjin.
“Sounds like you’ve had a busy first day!” laughed Linda as we all clinked glasses. We were at the wondrous Beijing Style King Noodle Restaurant, a massive space decorated in dark wood and hanging red lanterns. The place was chock-a-block, crammed full of hungry customers. And yet there seemed to be just as much staff, many of whom were converged around our table. They pulled my chair back for me, took my coat, pounced to replace my beer the second I took my last gulp and jumped to attention when I rose for the toilet. At one point a girl came scuttling over to ask me what was wrong, but I’d just been scratching my ear. And then there was the food, a magnificent array of mouthwatering dishes that had me ruing my lack of chopstick skills. Spicy runner beans and fried eggplant in a sweet honey-like sauce. An entire fried fish, served with chopped onions in a rich tomato and garlic sauce.
Linda and Ivan were so exceptionally hospitable it was humbling. They asked about our travel plans, taught us some Chinese, offered invaluable cultural insight and even picked up the dinner bill. We’d only met them a few hours ago and yet it felt like hanging out with old friends. “If you need a place to stay when you get back to Beijing, just let us know” clucked Linda and I knew that with these two we’d really landed on our feet.
“So sorry to see you go,” pouted Noodles as S and I checked out at reception. “Thanks Noodles” I said, tightening the straps on my backpack. “Rice will miss you very much, ha ha ha!” he squealed as the man himself slinked through the room and outside where he lit a cigarette, frowning off into the distance. Exiting Leo into the reasonably clear morning air, I looked up to see a hint of blue forcing its way through the clouds. “Ready?” asked S excitedly as the sound of hammering and drilling started a short way down the street. “Yup” I replied and off we went towards our great adventure.