We arrived in Beijing at about 3:00 PM after a 22 hour train ride from Guangzhou. I traveled with a wonderful group of ladies who were classmates together in high school. I won’t go into details, but I have had the fortune to be friends with them and to have been invited to travel with them, Chinese style, to see Beijing. I hoped that by traveling and living the same as my Chinese friends, seeing the things they were interested in seeing and doing the things they did, I would somehow see Beijing, and Chinese culture, through Chinese eyes; to experience Beijing and this small slice of China from the perspective of a national rather than as a "weiguoren" (foreigner).
Our train was met by another of the ladies’ classmates who has lived in Beijing for 20 years. She met us on the train platform of the Beijing West station. She had prepaid for a mass transit card for each of us. She directed us to Bus 52, and we used our mass transit card to embark on the bus ride to our hotel. The first bus numbered 52 was standing room only, so we waited for the next one to pull up. We stood at the front of the line and formed a physical barrier so that we would be sure to get seats. Once or twice, members of my party instructed people trying to cut into the front of the line to please wait in line, and the offending person would move to the back.
When the bus came, there was a mad rush of bodies to get onto it. I had made the unfortunate mistake of packing a suitcase that was not convenient for riding buses. That’s another story. Each time I travel, I learn a bit more about the benefits, and techniques, of traveling light. To add to my difficulty getting on the bus, however, one of my friends in front of me dropped an item out of her bag and didn’t notice it. I used one hand to pick up that item, but this left me one hand short when it came to lifting my heavy bag. I caused some "traffic jam" and people behind me did some yelling, but one of my buddies helped me shove my bag on board and we did all manage to obtain seats at the back of the bus. Those of us with normal size suitcases had to pay double fare, one for each of us and one for our bag.
Our hotel was in the Southeast side of Beijing, so our bus went straight through Beijing, right by Tiananmen Square, the center of the capital city. The scale of the plaza is impressive by any standard. We were arriving during the week of the People’s Party Congress, and it seemed to me that the city was noticeably spruced up with beautiful displays of potted flowers and immaculately manicured landscaping everywhere. Yet, as I mentioned in my earlier BLOG entry, my overwhelming sensation was simply that nothing could be beautiful when it was blanketed with so much smog. No matter how beautifully a birthday cake might be decorated, it wouldn’t be very appetizing if it were covered in soot and ashes, and that was how I felt about my first impression of Beijing. My throat was burning, my eyes were watering, and my chest felt somewhat painful. I had developed a cough. I found myself wondering if I would have to cut my trip short and go home. These were my impressions and feelings as we rode about 45 minutes to our bus stop.
We disembarked the bus at a stop which I later learned was called Guang Ming Da Zhao. This was a very important name for me to learn, so I also memorized the Chinese Characters for it. That way, if I were to be lost in the city I could find my way back to a familiar landmark. As it turned out, this was an excellent location for using the city bus system. It was at the intersection of two large roads and, because of this, many convenient and fast buses stopped at Guang Ming Da Zhao. When we got off the bus, we were on the south side of the four lane road. Our hotel was on a small street which ran away from the north side of the street. There was a fence in the median, to prevent people from crossing by foot across the heavy traffic. Therefore, we wheeled our suitcases the distance of about a city block to a place where we could cross, then wheeled them back up to the small street to get to the hotel. Once on the small street, we walked about another city block to an alley where we turned into the parking lot of the hotel. Altogether, this might have been about 200 meters.
Once in the lobby, we checked in to our hotel. China is a cash economy. My roommate and I paid an 800 RMB deposit, 400 RMB apiece, for our room which cost 140 RMB per night for a private ensuite room with heat, AC, 24 hour hot water, telephone, and two single beds. A special treat, our hotel also had an elevator to take us to our fourth floor room. (On our last trip, this spring which had been arranged by a travel agency, none of the hotels we stayed in had an elevator.) At the end of the week, I only had to pay an additional 20 RMB for the cost of the room. The window screen in our room was broken, so my roommate asked if we could have a different room. The reply was that there were no other rooms available. At first, I didn’t believe this response, but over the next few days it became apparent that the hotel was, indeed, pretty full. It seemed to mostly host Chinese businessmen and only one or two foreigners. The only foreigners I saw all week in the vicinity of this location were a German couple and an Indian family. As no English whatsoever was spoken, it was not a place a foreigner could have located or navigated around easily. My cell phone also has a Hong Kong (British) type plug, and I had forgotten my converter which enables it to plug into a Chinese wall socket. The hotel didn’t have one, but they allowed me to leave it at the desk to recharge overnight at a plug in their office.
I assumed the hotel wouldn’t have internet, but I did see some of the businessmen using internet in their rooms. My roommate inquired, and the businessmen said that of course, the hotel had internet. We went downstairs to ask for wires to plug in the internet in my room. I don’t have language skill to do this. My roomate, who did the asking on my behalf, was told that only a few rooms were wired for internet. She asked to switch to one of those rooms, but the answer was the same, that all those rooms were already booked. It was no big deal, because during the week I located the internet cafe which I wrote about a few days ago. I’ve decided that in this type of travel, it’s a waste for me to bring along my laptop. I have to worry about it getting stolen, and it has limited use. I didn’t even power it up during the week, and next time I think I’ll leave home without it.
Though train travel isn’t as taxing as air travel, I felt just a bit tired from the travel across town. I also wanted to shower, brush my teeth, and freshen up. So we all took showers. Then we set out again on the bus, a different bus, to our dinner. We were treated to a wonderful Beijing Hot Pot dinner by our Beijing hostess and her husband. I will write about that later.