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Beijing: My Overwhelming First Impressions of China

Well, we have arrived in Beijing, China and it is crazy!

First let me recount our journey here.

We packed up and left on Friday morning, Vancouver time. I had to chuckle when I noticed Greg’s had packed not one, but two travel pillows. As we walked the 200-m to the bus stop from Greg’s parents’ house we congratulated ourselves with a celebratory high-five. I looked over at his backpack and immediately noticed one of the travel pillows had fallen off. We had already lost an item, not more than 20 seconds into our trip. Too funny. The bus arrived promptly thereafter this moment so the pillow remains where it fell.

We flew Air China and much to my misfortune I discovered my in-flight entertainment screen was broken. Did I mention this was a twelve hour flight? Flying north from Vancouver we actually passed over Comox (my hometown) which made me pretty happy and then onward past Alaska, Siberia and the Koreas.

Beijing greeted us with a grey haze (which I am beginning to believe is character of the city) and a balmy temperature of 22°C. Any anxiety I had built up about arriving in the Chinese capital was quickly dismissed as the novelty of air travel rapidly dissipated.

We managed the express airport train into the city centre; managed being the operative word. An environmental awareness commercial played on the train’s monitors probably fifty times during the trip. “Mummy, my teacher says that travelling hurts the environment. But she also said that if we all ride together then we can make a difference.” In a British accent, in English. Good lord. Transferring off the train we filed onto the metro line and packed ourselves in tight. Keep in mind, we were arriving during rush hour. So far, so good.

Popping above ground to street level was an experience in itself. We were immediately confronted with new smells, sticky air and very much in the dark, despite it only being 7:30 p.m. I was a little anxious about finding our hostel after nightfall, despite finding some good directions in the user comment section on our hostel’s web page. We sorted out our direction of travel and headed off. After some initial confusion we bumped into a woman with a map (I can hear my mom groaning here) and headed into a hutong.

A hutong is a traditional Chinese neighbourhood, so to speak. The streets are lined with small shops and zigzagging alleyways leading from said streets. If you can imagine the most traditional Chinese neighbourhood possible, these are them. Laundry hangs from lines, lanterns adorn roofs, rats nests of wires shroud telephone poles, taxis and bicycles file between foot passengers, delicious and offensive aromas float through the air.

At night you can see the smog particles dancing the light of lamp beams. The best description I can give you is the feeling of running your finger over a frying pan that has a slight film of oil on its surface. Once you step out from your hotel you are enveloped by weighted air.

We found our hostel just as I sensed my anxiety rising. Perfect. We unpacked, showered and headed next door to order our first Chinese street food. Spicy chicken soup. Oh my god amazing! Thick spiced broth, bok choi, green pepper, noodles, chicken and capers. Interestingly enough, the cook dumped it all into a plastic bag, then placed it in a take out bowl and then put that into another bag with handles. To hell with lids right? Dinner cost $3.25, for the both of us. Shout out to my brother for the spork-spoon.

We managed to stay up until 10:00pm and slept through to 8:00 a.m.

Timing has worked out well, such that we’re pretty much over any jet lag. We headed out this morning and explored our hutong. Had a Western breakfast and then headed out to the Temple of Heaven, which is surrounded by other beautiful temples and halls, encompassed in a 270 hectare park. Read: it’s huge.

Getting there was a total experience. We went by foot, toting our new map and made it there rather directly (winning). I should have filmed it because it was absolute madness -crosswalks- are crazy. I literally watched someone cross an intersection (kitty corner to kitty corner) through a FOUR lane highway. For real!

We toured the park and its temples and photo documented much of it. Leaving, we hopped a tuk-tuk taxi. Having quoted 30 juan it was a steal to avoid the 2.5 or so kilometre trek back to our hutong. At some point we were taken on a wild ride through some slum hutongs and I was a bit put off, convinced we were about to be scammed. Which tea house – run by his friends – was he going to take us to? After spitting out some Chinese and us responding, “Oh, nice. Yah, un hunh. I see” we were dropped off at a hostel around the block from ours, and promptly charged 300 juan. Scammer, oh no you did-n’t! (300 juan exchanges to $45 CAD. No way.) A short confrontation ensued where the driver flashed a sign with some prices and pictures, and pointed at the 300 juan price. We firmly refused to pay it, handed him the original fare and we walked directly into the hostel. A bit rattled we found a restaurant in the hostel, ate lunch and settled ourselves.

A little while later we picked our way back to our actual hostel to where we find ourselves now.

I’ll note the squat toilets now. They’re not so bad once you get over the sight of them. However, I haven’t yet used a public one in a hutong. I definitely recommend packing ample supply of hand sanitizer and baby wipes.

Plans for the next few days include touring the Forbidden City (tomorrow) and a two-day overnight trip to the Great Wall (Jinshanling location; Tuesday or Wednesday). Hunting for friends tonight so we’ll be heading down the street to an expat/hostel restaurant-bar that we visited for breakfast this morning. Our hostel is lacking a certain ambiance in terms of meeting other backpackers, which will certainly be a priority for selecting hostels from here on out.

I also have to mention that Beijing could possibly be the bad fashion capital of the world.


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