After a hearty lunch of rice, tofu, and asparagus stems (never thought I’d say that), I’m ready to sit down and write about our trip to Beijing.
To get to Beijing from Shanghai, we took the bullet train. The bullet train is much faster than your average train; it accelerated and slowed intermittently during the duration of our trip, but at its fastest it was traveling nearly 200 miles per hour. We ended up covering the distance between Shanghai and Beijing (roughly the same distance between Florida and Pennsylvania, a trip that we have made several times in the last few years) in a little less than five hours. Amazing! And a little scary…
At the train station, we reunited with our American friend Joel, who actually inspired us to make this crazy trip to China in the first place. He has been living and teaching in Tianjin (about an hour outside of Beijing) since January. He helped us navigate the metro system and make the very long walk past Tiananmen Square to check in at our Beijing hostel. This hostel was not nearly as nice as the Rock and Wood where we roomed in Shanghai. This hostel only had one restroom and one shower room for everyone to share, and to my alarm, they did not provide towels (“Just use a t-shirt to dry off,” Joel casually suggested). The overall shabby and uncared for appearance of the place made me worry about the cleanliness (and safety!) of the establishment, but Joel assured us that the building we’d be staying in looked old because it was historical and was the site of many culturally significant events in the past. I tried to keep that in mind as I mounted the creaking, crooked stairway, and tried not to panic when, after unlocking the door, the doorknob fell off into Justin’s hand (“Don’t worry. Just stick it back on!” Joel calmly affirmed). Yes, this would be an altogether different experience from Shanghai…
Later on that evening, we went out to dine on some world-famous Peking duck with some of Joel’s teacher friends from his university in Tianjin. They seemed to be from all over the world—a German girl, a Belgian guy (who was a big fan of American heavy metal music), a Dutch guy, a Korean girl, and a girl from Hong Kong who was fluent in Cantonese (and we’ve been working so hard just to learn some Mandarin!). Any pride I had in my proficiency in English was immediately stripped away after learning that they were each fluent in five or six languages! Throughout the course of the dinner conversation that night, they kept slipping from English into German or Dutch or Chinese, making Justin and I feel a little left out of the “inner circle.” Justin suggested that we form our own inner circle by speaking with each other in Pig-Latin, but inexplicably, it didn’t seem to impress anyone.
The following day was the event that I’d been looking forward to for a long time—we were going to visit the Great Wall of China. I knew that the Great Wall was a couple of hours north of Beijing, but I still didn’t understand why Joel insisted that it would take the entire day to do. I would soon find out…
The first portion of our trip was an over-crowded, two-hour bus ride. I felt a little guilty taking an empty seat in the front row of the bus because there were many people (including Joel) who were left without a seat and forced to just plop down on the floor in the center aisle. The bus driver didn’t seem to mind the extra passengers—everyone paid the same ticket price, seat or no seat. I tried to nap a little bit on the way there, partly because it was so disconcerting to have a front row view of all the near-accidents and traffic violations that the bus driver was making. However, before we were even in sight of the Great Wall, our driver stopped the bus, shouted something to us in Chinese, and the passengers all started filing out. Another bus pulled up next to ours, and the drivers spoke to each other through their open windows. “What’s he saying?” we asked Joel, who majored in International Affairs and is pretty fluent in Mandarin. Joel replied, “He asked the other driver, ‘Where are you headed?’ I think he wants us to get on the other bus.” So we got onto the other (completely full) bus and stood in the middle aisle, hoping that the bus was indeed headed to the Great Wall. It was difficult to keep from falling onto the seated passengers as the bus made its way up a steep, bumpy mountain road and through a rural village. At one point, the paved street turned into a narrow dirt road, and the bus driver stopped and shouted to us in Chinese. Apparently he said something along the lines of, “End of the road! Everyone out!” because again, the passengers all started exiting the bus. “Are we just supposed to walk the rest of the way?” I asked, incredulously. For the second day in a row, I was starting to panic. Joel, ever composed, suggested that if we just follow everyone else, we would probably eventually find our way to the Great Wall.
After what seemed like a mile walk up a steep dirt road (how I wish I hadn’t worn my nice, new sneakers!), we came to a large sign with a map of the Great Wall. We knew we were at least heading the right direction. The street also became even narrower and was suddenly packed on either side with merchants selling Great Wall souvenirs. This portion of the street was also bursting with people, shoulder-to-shoulder, and I had to grab on to Justin’s backpack so I wouldn’t get separated. We continued to climb, past the merchants screaming little snippets of English at us such as, “You like? Come buy!” and “Only one dollar!” Joel taught us the useful Chinese phrase “bù yào” as a way of telling merchants that we weren’t interested in buying.
Finally, FINALLY, leg muscles burning and soaked through with sweat, we found a ticket booth selling tickets for a chair lift up to the Great Wall. The boys were a bit turned off by the prices (80 Yuan a ticket, almost twice what we paid for our ticket to the Great Wall itself), but I thought $12.50 was a great price to pay for a leisurely ride to the top of the mountain. I was so tired of walking!
Once we finally set foot on the wall, we were pleased to find that it was not nearly as crowded as the street en route. There were some places along the wall that were more populated than others; stairs that happened to be in the shade, where people wanted to sit and rest for a while, and little rooms along the wall that I can only describe as mini-fortresses with ancient stairs leading to a second floor. A few people approached me while we were on the wall and asked to take my photo. One was a girl who looked to be about my age and was traveling with her parents and her 80-year-old grandfather. As she took a picture of Justin and me standing alongside her grandfather, I tried to picture my own grandparents (who aren’t yet 80), climbing the Great Wall. I’m not sure they’d be able to do it; I feel like I barely survived it myself! Chinese people are so hardy and resilient, though. They never seem to retire—I see elderly people here at work all the time. There don’t seem to be any nursing homes in China, and I feel like I rarely see them with canes or wheelchairs. No one here seems to limit their expectations for the elderly, or treat them with care, as if they are fragile. I suppose that in China, only the strong survive. Maybe for that girl’s grandfather, climbing the Great Wall is nothing that 80-years’ worth of living in China hasn’t already prepared him for.
Later that afternoon, as we made our way back down The Wall and through the street of merchants, we started to wonder aloud amongst ourselves how we were going to get transportation back to our hostel. After all, the bus didn’t really drop us at an appointed bus stop, did it? At the end of the merchant’s row, we found the answer to our question in the form of a long line of weary travelers waiting at what appeared to be a bus stop. Joel spoke to the people at the head of the line in Mandarin to confirm that the bus was heading back to the Beijing bus station where we needed to go. We got in line, and about ten minutes later, a bus approached. We were perturbed to see that the front of the nicely-formed single file line quickly turned into a complete disarray of people—it was every man for himself! A family that had just left merchant’s row (hadn’t even set foot in line!) quickly ran past us down to the bus doors and were given seats. We couldn’t believe it! But our western manners had the three of us hesitating to skip in line. It just didn’t seem right, and it didn’t seem like it should work. There are so many wait-in-line situations in America—waiting in line for a teller at the bank, waiting in line to buy tickets at the movies, waiting in line to have a sandwich made at Subway, etc. There always seems to be guiding ropes, signs with polite instructions, a lot of organization, and good upbringing that help people to follow the rules and be civilized. People just don’t skip to the front of the line in America and get away with it. At the very least, the other people waiting in line will give the violator a stern look or a rude hand gesture to express their resentment. However, all of that organization is absent here; in China, skipping the line seems to be a socially acceptable (and frequent) practice. Apparently this country is so over-crowded that its residents have been brought up from a young age learning to fight, tooth and nail, for everything—even the chance to order a burger first at McDonalds. Joel, Justin, and I watched in despair as the line-skippers were rewarded over and over again with seats on the bus until it was completely full, and we were left stranded again.
Joel went to go speak with someone at the head of the line again, and came back to tell us that the next bus wouldn’t be by for another two hours. “TWO HOURS?” I complained. “There must be another way!” But this tiny, top-of-the-mountain village was just so isolated from everything, that it really seemed unlikely that a taxi would come driving by, and if it did, it was again unlikely that we would be the lucky three to have a ride on it. I suddenly remembered a scene from the movie War of the Worlds, when Tom Cruise is driving the seemingly only operational vehicle left in town through a street mobbed with people, desperate to escape the ongoing alien attack. As he drives the car down the street, people start running toward the car with outraged screams, demanding that he let them on. They swarm the car so tightly that he can’t move forward anymore, and they actually start rocking it back and forth as little Dakota Fanning cries in fear in the backseat. In the end someone actually starts firing a gun to get through the crowd and take possession of the car, pulling Tom Cruise right out the driver’s side door. I tried to imagine myself as that crazed, desperate person, fighting through the crowds of Chinese people and demanding to have a seat on that taxi, inspiring so much fear that the passengers already occupying the backseat scramble out of the door to let me sit there. No…it really seemed very unlikely. And as walking back to Beijing wasn’t an option, the three of us resigned ourselves to stay in the line and wait for the next bus.
I sat down on a knee-height wall next to the line (as many of the other line-goers were doing) and got out my Nook to read for a bit. Justin and Joel decided to go to a nearby restaurant and get us some sandwiches while I held their place. Eventually they returned, and we sat on the wall in silence, eating our sandwiches hungrily. No sooner had we finished eating, than there was a murmur amongst the people in the crowd. We could hear the transmission of a tired bus working its way up the hill toward the bus stop, so we gathered up our things and got ready. This time, we had a much closer spot in line and it seemed almost certain that we would make it aboard. But of course, a group of people (who had not been waiting in line for two hours) sneakily eased in to the front of the line and made their way onto the bus. I was pleased to see that at least, this time, the Chinese were not going to turn a blind-eye to the line-skippers. They all started pointing and shouting angrily, “Pài duì!” Justin started shouting it as well, even though he had no clue what it meant. (Joel informed us later that “Pài duì” translates into something along the lines of “get in line.”) However, the bus driver didn’t seem to care how long his passengers had been waiting for the bus. As long as they were willing to pay, he was allowing them on, rule-breakers or not. When they successfully boarded the bus despite everyone’s angry shouts, the scene turned to total chaos. Joel, not cool and collected for once, shouted, “Let’s go!” and Justin and I followed him, running down to the doors of the bus. I turned around for a moment to see that everyone behind us in line had also taken off in a sprint, and we were pulled into a swarming mob of people. We were very near the door, and Justin was behind me trying to help me push my way onto the bus. An elderly man came out of nowhere and started trying to slip to the front of the crowd (again, very hardy and resilient, those elderly)! When people started pushing him back and angrily yelling, “Pài duì,” he pulled out of the crowd for a moment and then returned holding a very nervous-looking infant high in the air. I wondered if that infant was actually related to him (or if he just snatched a baby at random?), but either way, it was a very sneaky tactic as people were very hesitant to push and pull a man carrying such precious cargo. Needless to say, that man’s tricky scheme awarded him a seat on the bus. However, as soon as the baby had made its way to safety, the crowd went wild again, all aggressively moshing with each other in effort to get to the door. Joel made it onto the bus and paid the fare for the three of us. I was right behind him, gripping each side of the doorway to pull myself up as I felt a few people desperately tugging at my backpack to pull me back down again. Once I made it up to the driver, I turned around, half to check that no one had torn a hole or stolen anything from my backpack, and half to make sure that Justin had made it aboard. He was there right behind me. I walked down the center aisle of the bus to look for a seat, only to realize that there were no seats left. “We’re going to stand in the aisle for the entire two-hour bus ride?” I asked in disbelief. Joel, looking Zen once again now that the madness was behind us, shrugged and said, “At least we made it onto the bus.” I glared at the elderly man who had skipped the line, sitting comfortably in the back row of seats. He smiled back at me with a look of smug satisfaction.
We had many other exciting adventures while we were in Beijing, including touring the Forbidden City, getting to see the Bird’s Nest (2008 Olympic Stadium), and haggling with the merchants in the Silk Road market. However, seeing as this is my longest blog entry to date, and climbing the Great Wall was the highlight of the trip for me, and no excitement or danger seemed to befall us during the rest of our stay in the hostel (other than the doorknob falling off over and over again), I feel like this is a good place to end. Thanks for reading!