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Into an Icy Asian Welcome

January 24th 2003 marked our arrival in China, the most intriguing of our Asian stopovers.  Trawling behind the crowd of weary travellers we made our way robotically through the arrivals building.  The discomfort of a noisy, poorly ventilated hostel in Singapore had robbed us of sleep the previous night.  We were exhausted.  Standing in the diabolical queue for immigration, we contemplated our unsatisfactory situation.  We were disastrously disorganised, and as such had no idea where we were going or how we would get there.  Withdrawing a random amount of cash from an ATM we headed straight to a café to scrutinise our Lonely Planet.

Once familiarised with the value of the local currency we realised we’d just paid over the odds for two watermelon juices.  We also established that any form of accommodation was going to be more expensive than we’d become accustomed to.  Using  our travel guide we concocted a plan that involved catching two buses and a subway to the other side of the city . This, apparently, was where the cheapest hotels resided. Satisfied with our work we triumphantly left the airport building, on the underestimated quest of locating the bus terminal.

Outside we suffered a cruel introduction to the bitterly cold Chinese climate. My boyfriend, Paul, had chosen to travel in shorts and a T-Shirt. An amusing choice that I‘d questioned repeatedly before leaving Singapore.  A sideways glance informed me that my smug ‘I told you so’ expression was received with distaste.   Our search for the bus terminal was not a simple one.   Stupidly, we had arrived in this comparatively non-touristy  Kingdom having failed to acquaint ourselves with any of the local ‘lingo‘.   It seemed that absolutely nobody around the airport could speak English, or if they could, they weren’t making themselves known. The abundant information signs with their mind boggling array of complex symbols were of no help either.

We eventually arrived at our required destination.  A disturbingly long line of buses and no way of finding out which one we needed.  After much dithering and aimless wondering up and down, we jumped on the one that was revving the loudest and therefore seemed most likely to leave the Airport first.   With no idea where we were headed, we hoped to orientate ourselves using guidebook landmarks on the way.  We failed miserably.  The stress was making us bicker as we struggled to agree on where or when we should get off.   The bus slowly emptied, forcing us to make our second blind choice of the day.  Like sheep  we disembarked with the majority of the remaining passengers at a stop that was no more than a large parking bay.

Abandoned at the roadside, we felt totally lost.  That was until a cheery, yet earnest looking man approached us, obviously keen to take advantage of our predicament.  It seemed he could take us to a nearby hotel where there were double rooms for around the same price as the one we were unsuccessfully heading to.  We had fallen for scams like this before in Asia.  Any room rate would undoubtedly include a cut for himself.  However we were becoming increasingly frustrated at not being able to make ourselves understood. Reluctantly we agreed to his offer.  This man at least spoke reasonable English and his promise of transport was appealing too. We were keen to get out of the cold. 

Unfortunately this latter request was not to be.  The man whistled for his mate, our ‘taxi’, who turned out to be the proud owner of a pre war style bicycle.  We were bundled into a wooden crate, which was haphazardly attached to the back.  Our only comfort was a makeshift bench.  The whole contraption was barely large enough to accommodate us, let alone our two bulging packs and a set of diving fins that Paul had spontaneously purchased in Thailand.  Once settled, we headed rather unsteadily, along the snow-lined dual carriageway.  The bike felt like it was about to buckle under our weight. It could not have been designed for such an inhumanely heavy load.

Our hearts went out to our undernourished courier as he pedalled determinedly along the slippery roads, weaving in and out of the constant flow of traffic.  Paul’s choice of clothing no longer seemed amusing.  The frosty weather was beyond the scope of my sweatshirt and jeans.  Eventually we pulled up outside a cosy looking hotel.  The reception was warm and welcoming and we felt ready to take it at whatever cost.  It was full.  Disillusioned, we clumsily clambered back into the splintering box, making every  effort not to overturn our inapt vehicle.  We set off, back down the dual carriageway our lives entrusted to this wily cyclist, who seemed oblivious to his appalling working conditions.

Our next stop was another appealing, yet unavailable hotel.  This one had no hot water and as such was refusing to take guests. The bad news seemed to phase our guide, and within minutes the original man from the bus stop loomed up in a proper taxi.  He apologised profusely for our misfortune, but it seemed he was to come to our rescue with an alternative hotel that was not much more expensive. We were starting to feel ripped off.  The now seemingly worn out cyclist was leaning against his decrepit bicycle looking forlorn and needy.  We felt obliged to give him some money for his heroic efforts, although in reality he had done nothing to aid our cause .  It  was dark, and the streets were becoming deserted.  We had little choice but to go with our scheming acquaintance, bartering him down as much as possible  for the hotel that we hoped would become the end of our search. 

Ten minutes later and our taxi was heading a disturbingly long way out of the city centre.   We suddenly felt vulnerable and were relieved when we finally came to a stop outside a pleasant looking hotel in a dark, non descript street.  The foyer greeted us with a rush of warm air and the mouth-watering scent of Asian cuisine.  Standing dumbly in the corner, we listened to an in-comprehendible gabble of Chinese as the efficient looking reception staff negotiated our room tariff.  We were distraught when, before leaving, our undoubtedly well commissioned tout held out his hand for a taxi fare.  It seemed his original promise of taking us to a cheap hotel had long since been forgotten.   Too weary to argue we reluctantly forfeited more of our rapidly depleting cash.

Our room was a backpacker’s paradise.  From the two immaculately laid beds, with copious amounts of freshly laundered bedding, to the television in the corner.  The second of which introduced us to the hilariously horrific high-pitched notes of Chinese Opera.  A much appreciated luxury were two appealingly fluffy bath towels. Our own towels were the result of an expensive shopping blunder in a London trekking shop. Designed for the space challenged backpacker, they were not much larger than flannels and frustratingly in-absorbent.  Determined to make the most of our accommodation, I enjoyed my first bath since leaving home, indulging myself with the free toiletries. 

Feeling refreshed and invigorated we set out to find food.  Our unexpectedly extravagant lodgings had left us short of cash and we desperately needed an ATM.  Enquiring at reception was a fruitless task.  A well presented impression of the usage of a cash machine, complete with cash cards in hand, was totally wasted on our baffled audience .  Instead we went on a hunger fuelled march for a restaurant that accepted Master Card.  They all looked very local, small and unhopeful.  As a last resort we decided to try the restaurant in our hotel where, after studying our card for ages, the waitress informed us she couldn’t accept it.

With barely any cash we warily set about ordering dinner, hoping that the food prices didn’t match those of the accommodation.  The menu was in Chinese but fortunately there were pictures and a rather obliging waiter to aid us.  Since we were in Beijing we felt we should sample the crispy aromatic duck.  This was sensational as well as cheap.  The waiter used two chopsticks to Skilfully prepare the duck and produce a perfect pancake to start us off.  Our attempts to do the same resulted in a shameful mess of plum sauce and torn pancake and thus the chopsticks were hurriedly discarded. Throughout the meal we were generously served green tea, something I had never previously been a fan of.  Sniffing the leafy beverage set before me I tried to open my mind to its unappetising colour .  I warily took a sip, contemplating the earthy, wholesome flavour. Taken with the surprisingly sweet aftertaste I found myself embracing the offer of another cup.

Several green teas later and I required the toilet.  A cursory check around the restaurant gave me no indication as to where this was.  We called over our helpful waiter and asked him, using every phrase we could think of, the whereabouts of the increasingly needed facility.  Despite previously being fairly accommodating, he had now chosen to act dumb, obviously enjoying the unexpected entertainment that we were providing.  It wasn’t until Paul stood up to attempt a potentially offensive charade, that he reluctantly pointed me in the right direction.

To end the day we suffered the bleak outdoors again to search for mineral water.  We were unsure as to whether we could drink the tap water here and couldn‘t face the ordeal of asking.  The temperature had dropped even further, The pavements were covered in hard, frozen snow, which crunched noisily beneath our feet, making us feel colder again.  Our search took us to a tiny stall tucked down a dingy side alley.  Behind the counter several women, clad from head to toe in thick winter clothing, huddled together to keep warm.  Their inability to speak English seemed to disappoint them as they eagerly tried  to help us. We were becoming increasingly ashamed of our linguistic failures and only after a exasperating display of pointing and gesturing were we rewarded with two small bottles of mineral water.

On the way back to the hotel we finally found an ATM, unhelpfully concealed in a glass booth.  We had probably walked past it several times previously.  I felt mentally drained from the strain of the last few hours and the worry of what was to come.  We were stranded, in an unidentifiable suburb, in a country where nobody understood us.  If Paul McKenna was here he could use his hypnotic skills to convince us that we knew Mandarin, Cantonese or whatever it is they speak in Beijing.  Unfortunately he was not, and tomorrow we were faced with the almighty task of locating the city centre. 

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