I'm a bit like a dog trying to find a spot to sleep walking around beside the river here in Frankfurt, trying to find a perfect place to sit and type, because I'm fairly sure that I'm going to need a comfortable spot for the length of time unravelling the abnormal events of my 48 hour trip to China is going to take. Theoretically, had all gone according to plan in fact, I'd be sitting on a plane heading for Kuala Lumpur right now, having enjoyed nearly a week in China. I suppose really, I should have taken the hint when the girl in Osaka Airport couldn't find me on the computer for check-in – with the benefit of hindsight, I could've just returned to the hostel and found flights to somewhere – anywhere – else. When the time finally came to board this battered-looking Air China 737 bound for Beijing, it didn't take long to figure out that were the flight to go down, I would almost certainly be the only Irish person, if not the only European on the plane.
The plane was tattered and old on the inside and the staff were what I'd later come to accept as typical Chinese ‘hospitality' – ignorant, rude and unwilling to try and communicate in a language other than their own. We took off – well, I say we took off, it was really more a case of the power of the plane became sufficient to lift us off the ground and from there on in, we'd spend the following 3 hours bouncing up and down and tilting seemingly uncontrollably as we neared Beijing. Finally, the meal was served – green, cold noodles wrapped in cling-film, much like you'd do to some leftover food from the previous nights party. To top it off, there was some mystery meat on top of the noodles, which I deemed was best returned untouched. After a little over 3 hours, we descended out of the clouds and with Beijing clearly visible off to the left, we continued to bounce around the sky all the way until we more or less fell onto the ground at Beijing Airport and skidded and made sharp turns all the way along the runway until we came to a stop. If I knew then that this lunacy was going to continue for the remainder of my stay, make no bones about it, I'd have left on the next available flight.
The airport was bordering on the palatial and this was the first of many scams the people of China would try and execute on me – the result of the Olympics and all the fanfare surrounding it means that the airport and other places you're likely to see during your visit are done up to the nines but then once you get out of them, you're literally propelled into the pretty bleak normality. My booking confirmation informed me that to get there from the airport, I should take Shuttle Bus no.3 to Beijing Railway Station. What it didn't tell me was that in actual fact, the shuttle buses don't have any numbers written on them and that it's not really a ‘tourists' way of getting from the airport. As soon as I got on the bus, which was so cramped that bags were being piled up on 2 seats at the front, some man started yelling at me right from the off and eventually I figured out that the translation was that foreigners sit at the back of the bus, conveniently far away from their bags. Given that my bags were at the bottom of the pile, I happily took his advice and sat down at the back – for the following hour and a half, people continued to talk (or shout) on their mobile phones, the driver weaved in and out of Beijing traffic, pushing himself nearly into the side of at least 5 taxis and at one point propelling the bus through a red stop light, leaving the back of the bus (i.e., where I was sitting) still on the junction which cars were now trying to cross, even if that involved driving right into the back of our bus. The woman beside me made no effort to move her bags out of the way of my seat so my knees were artificially high as my feet were resting on top of her bag, as opposed to the floor. To add insult to injury, the stops were announced only by the driver who screamed out each stop in Chinese, stared at me each time as if he knew I should be getting off at it, and then hopped back in the drivers seat and took off again, making no effort to check whether there were cars oncoming or not.
Finally, when most people started getting off, I quite rightly figured out that it was my time to get off too and hopped off and into the arms of about a hundred waiting moped and taxi drivers. If they could've physically pulled my backpack off me and put it in the boot of their cars themselves, they gladly would've – from the relative comfort of the bus, I found myself suddenly surrounded by countless amounts of taxi and moped drivers all grabbing my arm, trying to barter with me from the most ridiculous price levels and most worryingly, refusing to tell me where the train station was. Of course, I only needed to find the train station just to make sure that I was actually there – the next part of my journey clearly stated that it was easiest and most cheaply done in a taxi.
The taxi ride was something I'd give anything to forget. My method of choosing was to select the driver that seemed most uninterested in picking up the fare, reckoning that in fact I was more likely to be on straight and level playing ground with them. Wrong. I have this strange obsession with keeping my bags, no matter how big, with me whenever I'm on my own on in a taxi or something and although I think nothing of it at this stage, it would actually come back as being highly intelligent about 6 minutes down the road. So we set off and he continues the trend of tearing all over the road, in whichever direction the wind seems to take us, but then suddenly we take a complete diversion off course and start going down the wrong way away from what I reckon is the city – just slowly getting further away – to the point that I began to panic slightly. I knew I'd set a price with our man beforehand but was starting to reckon that didn't mean much so, figuring it couldn't do any harm, I waited until he wasn't looking and took some pictures of the streets and looking back on them now – and I can tell you that it's the first time I've looked at them since – we definitely seem to be going in the opposite direction to everything else, including the buildings. So we drive for what felt strangely like an eternity – even the awkward dead silence or non-stop useless chitchat of a Dublin taxi driver has never made me feel quite so tense. In reality, it was probably closer to only about 4 minutes. We pull down this narrow street, big enough only for one car with people staring into the taxi outside and as we pass some beggar doubled over lying on the ground in what looks like their own vomit, I feel the car coming to a halt. Hostels are often in rough areas but never this rough – I grab my bag with the most valuables in it and check my phone's in my pocket.
Within what was probably only about a minute at tops I was out of the car and away, but as is always the case with these things, the adrenaline sort of kicked in and a minute has never felt longer in my life. The guy turns around as I lurch forward for the door handle. He asks me if I'm from Europe and my reply straight from the off is more on the offensive than friendly; ‘I might be, where's the hostel?'. With that he informs in a decidedly less friendly tone that the fare for people such as myself from abroad is the same number, 25, but instead of being 25 Yuan, it's 25 Euro (about 275 Yuan), and on top of that, he reckons, it'd be another 5 Euro to drive the rest of the way to the hostel. I immediately disagree, he disagrees back and this goes on, voices slowly getting louder and louder with each passing comment. Similarly, with each passing comment, he insisted the price was getting higher and higher, no doubt to cover the costs of the extra petrol spent idling there – eventually the figure of 100 Euro was being put to me, in all seriousness. Although I had 25 Yuan already in my hand, I was quickly coming to figure that I was going to come out of this at a loss, one way or the other so as one last effort, decided to announce I was getting the cops. Far from having the desired reaction, he smiles and nods his head thinking about it instead, like I've mentioned some old friend of his from school and pauses on the thought for a few moments before telling me to go right ahead, see how far I got. Instead of trying my luck, I fling my bags out onto the street and within seconds he literally races to climb into the back where I am now in the midst of making my escape. Somewhere in the back of my mind, creating some sort of diversion to get both body and bags clear of the taxi at any cost seemed now like the best idea – knowing that the only person who'd hear us would (perhaps) be the unconscious beggar down the street was not a comforting thought. So, in that split second, I settled for the fact that sometimes it's better to lose some money than anything more important – with my wallet in my hand, I opened it, pulled out a wad of Chinese notes and literally threw them in the guys face and made a dash for it.
I sometimes surprise myself with how quickly I can move fully loaded down with my rucksack and bag but never have I surprised myself more than right then, as I grabbed my stuff, putting it on as I went and let my mind figure out where to go next – knowing that the street we'd come down was long and rough-looking along its entire length, I marched to the top of the road. As I did, mind still buzzing, I heard the car pull up behind me again and moved quicker, straight out onto the main road and in the direction of the first buildings I saw. In the end, the guy drove me past slowly, quickly enough to let me know I didn't need to get sprinting but also slowly enough to creep me out a bit further. That was the last I saw of him. I wandered along, having no clue where exactly I was, for about 10 minutes before coming to some shopping square. I walked around the square at least 4 or 5 times before two people sitting over on a bench by a load of trees asked, in perfect English, if I was alright. Figuring at this stage, I'd nothing to lose by just asking where the hostel was, I went ahead. So I asked them where the hostel was and did they know of it and after a brief exchange between themselves in Chinese, they reckoned that they did and pointed roughly in the direction it was in. As I went to walk away, they insisted on coming with me in spite of my protests that I'd be fine from there on in. No, apparently I wouldn't and they absolutely insisted that there was a great shortcut to be found through the shopping centre (to be fair, it was sort of in the way of the direction they'd pointed). Becoming instantly exhausted by the prospect of having to make another ‘evacuation' of sorts, I found myself with no choice but to walk along through the shopping centre with them. One of them however dropped back to make a phone call and the other was pacing, staring straight ahead, too busy talking I reckoned to really notice what was going on. The next left was for the toilets – I was quite sure that the taxi incident was all the bad luck I really wanted for the day and that this little ‘meet-up' wouldn't turn out to be a free act of decency.
So then I just went for it -as we passed the toilets, I slowed down for a second as if I was looking for something in my bag and then ran into the toilets. It was just as well I did too – this would indeed later turn out to have been a very definite scam in which the friendly duo take an unsuspecting visitor for a bit of a walk to somewhere before more or less demanding money and threatening to call the police if they don't get it (and since we'd now established that the cops were definitely not likely to be on my side, doing a runner was definitely the best option, no matter how comical it seems in hindsight) – a variation of the ‘art student' scam I'd go on to learn about from a poster in the jacks of the hostel the following day. The flight landed at 16.25 in Beijing, but it wouldn't be until nearly 10 that evening before I'd finally make it to the hostel. Needless to say things weren't straightforward at the hostel and this added to the overall ‘Chinese experience'. I'm going to finish off tomorrow so make sure to come back and check that out but in the meantime, thanks for reading and tomorrow I'll explain what happened with the hostel and how I ended up being in a log cabin in the woods outside Beijing for a night…