It was a nice, clean, modern sleeper bus – two tiers of bunks ran in three rows along the length of it. There were lights, so that you could read, and curtains, so that you could sleep, and a bathroom at the back. Every few bunks, there were little flatscreen TVs. Unlike on trains, the no-smoking signs posted at the front actually seemed to have an effect.
On the whole, the bus ride was more comfortable than all the train rides I’d taken – sure, the bunks were a little cramped, but that hardly seemed worth complaining about.
We stopped for dinner at a truck stop somewhere in the middle of Liaoning Province* and I got to meet a couple of my fellow passengers. One of them, a sixtyish man, came up and sat at my table. Unlike the other passengers, who all spoke with clear Dongbei diction, he was clearly not from around these parts. He had a funny accent on him, this guy – textbook-standard in some places, weirdly Southern-sounding in others. And his accent was the best part of his Chinese, which was at best phrasebook-level. It took him almost a minute to order beer and noodles.
He asked where I was from and I followed my usual habit of saying that I was from Ireland.*
“And yourself? You don’t have a northern accent.”
“I’m… from… North Korea.”*
“Oh, wow. Why are you going to Beijing?”
“To see my… grandson. He’s a… student at… People’s University.”
The bus ride resumed without further event. The TVs kept blaring crappy xiangsheng skits – a sort of bad Chinese stand-up – but that didn’t matter, since I sleep badly anyway; I just listened to my MP3 player and adjusted the volume so that it would out-blare all but the most nasal performers.
We arrived in Beijing around 4 in the morning, at the Dongzhimen bus station. Everything was locked up, and the lights were out. The gates were locked, too, and all obvious ways of getting from the bus parking lot to the street were closed. Finally, someone found a gap in the fence,* and we all squeezed through onto the street, where there were taxis of both the legal and illegal varieties waiting for us.
The former having all been taken by the time I wrestled my bag – which I was beginning to have serious doubts about – off my back, I took the latter, and bargained the driver down to a fare slightly lower than an actual cab would have charged. We chatted a little along the way – my Chinese confused him, and he pegged me at first for a Uighur,* rather than as British or German, which are generally cabbies’ first guesses in Beijing.* We got to the corner of Worker’s Stadium Road and Sanlitunr, which was where I’d asked him to take me, and he dropped me off, gave me a hand with my bag, and wished me luck.
Then I spent a little while walking around and trying to remember where the hostel was.
I was going to be staying at the Youyi – Friendship – hostel, which is attached to a British bar, courtyard, and library. The main reason I picked it – besides the low low low prices – was that it was right next door to an Indian/Thai restaurant where I’d once had an excellent (and ruinously expensive) Indian meal. Of course, it was 4:30 in the morning, and the restaurant was closed, but just passing it as I entered the little alley off Sanlitunr Beilu gave me a little thrill: no more eating Shuangceng Kali Ji Hanbao* at KFC and pretending they were good — finally, I’d have access to Indian food, real Indian food. It’d set me back a couple hundred kuai, but fuck that; I was getting me some spicy curry action, and wasn’t nobody gonna stop me.
The hostel was closed, too; the gate was locked, and I didn’t yet know that I could just rattle it and have a night watchman come out. So I stood there for a moment, put my bag down, stretched, put it back on, and walked off to get breakfast. There was a 24-hour shaokao place around the corner, so I sat and ate noodles and lamb skewers until a little after 6, which I judged a likely hour for hostel-opening.
Sure enough, they’d just unlocked the gate, and I went in, paid for a 4-day stay, loaded my bag onto my bunk, and walked out to a nearby mall that I knew had an ATM.
They hadn’t opened yet – it was by now about 7 in the morning – but whatever; it wouldn’t be going anywhere, and I still had a couple hundred kuai in my pocket.
So I walked around for a little while, and marvelled at how glamourous Beijing was. The skyscrapers, the vending machines, the shopping malls – all things I’d taken completely for granted the last few times I’d been in town – seemed to shine with a divine light. “Home,” they said. “We are just like our counterparts at home.”
I went back to the hostel, met up with Kerry – who was staying in the room next to me, as it turned out – chatted for a while with him and some fellow hostellers, and then went out for an early lunch at the Indian restaurant, which was the main reason I’d wanted to go to Beijing in the first place.
My plans for the day included an ATM visit, some leisurely walking, and full, thorough enjoyment of Beijing’s cosmopolitan, Western amenities.*
(…to be continued…)