Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Beijing: The First 24 Hours

Saturday, February 9, 2013. 4:00am.

Having gone to bed at 11:30pm on Friday (rather than around 9pm like I'd planned), 4am came extremely early. But, as soon as John Mayer started singing to me I couldn't stop thinking "I'm going to China today!" So, with a big smile across my face, I got ready for the following 24 hours...
After showering and getting my hair and makeup finished, I finalized my packing. I had packed most of my things during the week or the night before, so I just had to throw in the last of it: hair dryer, straightener, makeup, comb, brush, toiletries. All the stuff a girl needs in the morning. After getting my suitcase situated, I reheated some pizza from the night before. Little did I know, I would not be eating much else the rest of the day. So despite the obvious unhealthiness of the choice, I'm glad I did eat those 2 slices...

Around 5:45am, I left my apartment! I had to stop at the 7-Eleven and recharge my subway card since it had about 50won on it (~$0.50). Then, on to the subway. Thankfully my subway line goes to Gimpo without needing to change anywhere, although it does take around an hour. So I settled in and daydreamed about the next four days...

When I arrived at Gimpo, it was super easy to get checked in. When I asked the lady at the counter if I got to check a bag, she shook her head no. Although I had packed a carry-on size bag, I'd wanted to check it just to not deal with dragging it all over airports. Since my flight was direct, I figured there wasn't much threat of losing it. So, anyway, she says no. A little stunned, I asked again, "No bags?" This time she says "22kg". Ahhhh! So, I plopped my bag up there and sure enough, I was fine in weight. I suppose I could have checked several bags as long as they didn't weigh too much.

After getting my boarding pass, she directed me to a monitor and told me to watch for my luggage. Erin had told me about this: if you see your bags on the monitor, going on the little conveyor belt, then all is well. If you don't see them, they'll come and find you and apparently something in your bag had a red flag. Thankfully, my bag passed by no problem-o.

Security was easy-breezy, but when I passed the money exchange counters, I had an internal struggle (and a resulting phone call to mom) about if I should change my money in Korea or in China. Ultimately, I decided to wait 'til China. (*Insert foreshadowing here*)

At the gate, the cutest little girl and her mom walked by me. The little girl stared at me, which I've begun to get used to by now. When adults do it, I look away and ignore them. When adorable little children do it, I wave and smile. This little gem waved back so emphatically, using both arms, and had the biggest smile! She walked to the window area with her mom, but kept turning around to look at me. Of course, I kept grinning at her. Eventually I got distracted in my book on my iPad, but suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see this little princess has come right up to me and taps me on the arm. I look up and can't help but smile! I give her a high-five (since I think a hug might freak out Mom), and she giggles helplessly and runs off, glancing back the whole time. So precious.

Once we begin boarding, she disappears and I wait a while for the majority of the passengers to get through the line. Eventually I get on the plane, and I pass right by the little girl. She is looking down, so I give her a little pat on the knee and wave and say "annyeonghaseyo"! (Which is Korean for Hello!) She says "Hello!" back to me. :D

Anyway, once on the plane, I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have the set of seats to myself. I settle into the window seat and get myself arranged. The flight was far from full, and it was a very pleasant flight. Asiana was rated the #1 airline this year, and I think they deserve it. The flight was 1hr 40min, and I got full meal service, two beverage services, and in-flight entertainment (I watched Taken 2). Most of the time, on a flight that short, I'm used to zero customer service. This was awesome! 

Once we landed in Beijing, I headed to get my bag. At immigration, I handed the man my passport and after a second he hands it back and points to several lines to the left and says "Please go to Foreigner Service". I look up at the board over his head, which says "Foreigner Service" and give him a winning smile, "Um, I thought this was Foreigner Service?" He looks up, bewildered, and says, "Oh! It changed!". Instead of switching it back and telling me to get lost, he kindly stamped my passport and helped me through. He was kind, and I pressed the little button on his desk that said "Greatly Satisfied!" :)

I had to take a train to the main terminal, and got my bag, which was very promptly hauled out of the plane. After going through customs, I emerged into the main area. My first priority was getting some local currency, since I had to buy a ticket for the Airport Express Train into the city. I had done my homework in Seoul and I knew the best exchange rate was from 300,000Won to 1740Yuan. So when I got to the first exchange counter and she offered me 1428Yuan, I turned her down. I would lose quite a bit of money, so I continued to look for other exchange counters. Well, I couldn't find any for quite a long time. I wandered around the terminal, getting a bit frustrated, then finally found a bank. Well, it was packed and when I took a number, it was 27. I looked at the sign which was currently helping no.3. Cripes! I waited a few minutes, confused as to how in the world it would be such a long wait, and then left. 

I found another bank, which didn't have much of a wait, but they wouldn't change KRW, and referred me to a third bank. He told me how to get there, but I still couldn't find it, so eventually asked Information. When I finally got to that bank, and asked if they could exchange KRW, this guy sitting in the waiting area spoke to me.

He said "You want to exchange Korea Money for China Money?" 
"Err... yes...?"
"I will give you better rate than the bank."

Totally freaked out by this, and expecting a scam, I looked around helplessly. No one was giving me frantic "don't do it!" hand gestures or angry looks for speaking to this guy, so I asked what he would give for 300,000. He said a rate, which meant nothing to me, so I asked how much total. He told me 1680. I said, "and that's better than the bank?" 

He goes, "Come on" and walked into the VIP room of the bank and asks her (in Chinese) to write down how much Yuan for 300,000Won. She wrote down something like 1650. So, after mentally running down a check list of all the ways he could be scamming me, I finally decided to just do it. Even after getting the money and counting it 3 times, I was still a bit nervous that I had been ripped off. But, in the end, it worked just fine. And despite a whole lot of frustration and time wasting (around an hour and a half in the airport already), I think it was worth it to get the best rate. 

After this, I was so happy to finally head to the ticket counter for my Airport Express Train ticket. Shelling out 25 Yuan (which was about $4.00 and change...), I was finally on my way to the city!

Once I made it to Dongzhimen Station, I had to change to the subway. I tried to play it cool and use the automated ticket machine, but the Chinese lady behind me had to help me. I couldn't figure out why it cared what station I was going to! But, she was very kind and helped me figure it out. The subway is so cheap - 2Yuan (~$0.30) per single ride. Thankfully the station I was heading to - Qianmen - was on the same line as Dongzhimen, so it was quite easy. Once I got to Qianmen, I pulled out the directions to my hostel.
Entrance to Qianmen St.
Zhengyang Gate, South side of Tiananmen Square
Everything was great, until I left the subway station. The directions said to go through an underpass, but so far as I could see there was no such thing. The area my exit came up at was a square next to some big palace-looking thing. I wandered around for a while, and finally got frustrated. With tears welling in my eyes, I told myself "Don't you cry!" So silly, but I had to force myself to just get it together and figure this out. Finally, a man who was trying to get me to stay at a hotel he was advertising told me how to get to the first street I needed to be on. I managed to make it there, so I was on the right track.

Next step was to turn right at the second set of lights. Well, I passed the first one quickly, but then I walked rather a while without seeing any lights... I just kept going, checking each road sign I passed to be sure I wasn't missing it. Finally I found the right street, and saw a McDonalds on the corner of the intersection. How terrible is it that all I could think was, "Okay, excellent! I won't starve!"

I turned the corner and began walking down a side street. It seemed quite traditional looking, insofar as it was a bit run down and had a lot of red stuff hanging from the buildings and light posts. The directions said to walk 600meters, but seeing as I don't think in terms of meters, I wasn't too sure how far that was. I just kept walking and trying to look at every sign on all the doors. I finally got to a fork in the road, and felt certain I must have passed it, since the directions did not say anything about a fork in the road.
The street my hostel was on

After turning in a few circles trying to figure out where the heck I was, I finally saw a building number, which said 89. My hostel was No.55. Um, definitely too far. I turned around and finally found the right place. I had missed it because there are two sets of doors, one for the hostel and the other for the restaurant that is in the hostel. I had just seen the sign for the restaurant, which I hadn't heard of in order to link the two places in my mind. I poked my head in and saw a man and a woman sitting at tables, facing the entrance. Unsure that it was the right place, since it was a restaurant, I asked "Am I in the right place?" (As if they were to know what the "right place" was...) He immediately says, "No." then laughs. Still a bit wary, I laughed along, all the while thinking, "If this is the wrong place, I give up!"

In the end, it was and I got checked into my room. The rate was about $10 per night (60Yuan), plus a deposit. I staggered into my dorm, and there was another girl there. She was German, and her name was Alex. We didn't speak much, as her English was only okay, and I was exhausted. It was around 1pm. 
Qianmen Street was decked out for Spring Festival

I settled my luggage into the locker and climbed onto the bed. After connecting to the WiFi, I realized that true to the rumors, Communist China does in fact censor Facebook from their internet. Apparently, you need to VPN into it, but since I was only going to be there a few days, I decided not to attempt to find a way around it. 

After an hour of rest, I figured I should take advantage of my hours and get some sightseeing in. It was around 2:30, and I was due to meet with the CouchSurfing group for the Chinese New Year Dinner/Party at 6:30, so that left me 4 hours. I was starving, but didn't want to ruin my dinner. I ended up heading back to the subway (on the way finding that tricky underpass the directions spoke of...) and went to the park with the Temple of Heaven. 

After determining the correct subway station, I arrived at the park entrance. The entrace fees confused me, as one said "Entrance: 10Yuan" and the other "Through Ticket: 30Yuan" I tried to ask the woman; she said Through Tickets were sold out, but I could get one inside. So I just got the entrance ticket. Once inside the park, I checked out the map. It was a pretty big park, and there were lots of buildings and historical things, but I wanted the main temple, which was conveniently located right in front of me, I just had to walk a little bit.

As I walked through the park, it was totally dead. Only a few people here and there. At one part, there was a row of old people sitting along this porch(? I can't think of the right word) playing cards. It was hilarious because there were literally 20 games of cards going on, and so many old people. I had to take a photo...

At the entrance to the actual temple area, I bought the "Through Ticket" which I suppose meant through all the buildings? The big temple is surrounded by a wall, so if you don't get the ticket, you can't really see anything from outside. So, I went on in. There were more people inside, but there were still not many. It was interesting, but a bit anti-climactic. 

I did get to use my new panoramic app on my phone for some cool shots! It was fun to practice there. After I had taken my fill of photos, I wandered around the park for a while longer. I must have walked a few miles; the park is quite large and I think I saw most of it. 

By then I was extremely hungry, but dinner was still an hour and a half away. As I left the park, I headed across the street. I saw a McDonalds and made a beeline. I know, I'm a terrible expat, but when you're totally starved and don't speak the local language, and have only just arrived with no recommendations of how to order in said foreign language, well, McDonalds looks quite tasty at that point. 

I got a Happy Meal (trying to abate the growing gnawing feeling in my stomach without getting too full) and happily munched away. As I was finishing up, a little boy wandered up to me. As I looked out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man across the room wave the boy to come back over. Instead, the boy said "Hello!" to me. Surprised, I said "Hello" back. 

He is probably the coolest kid ever. He is 9 years old, his English name is Barry (although he told me he didn't like that name because his friends call him strawberry or blueberry), and he knows Chinese, English, French, and Japanese. I would say he is almost fluent in English. We talked for a while, him asking me what I was going to do in Beijing and offering advice on what I should do. He asked me if I wanted to go to this park nearby with him and his dad. I told him I couldn't because I was meeting some friends for dinner soon. He then asked if I wanted to go to this hot springs resort with his family the next day. Laughing, I told him I already had plans to go to the Great Wall! He insisted on writing down his mom's phone number and telling me to call so we could meet to go to the park on Monday. I told him several times I don't have a working phone number in China, but he just didn't seem to get it. So, I told him I would try but I couldn't promise.

Before leaving, Barry gave me one of his toys. He had about 8 little toy characters in his pockets and showed me all of them, and gave me one that was a monkey that he said is called Boxing Monkey. It was so sweet of him to give it to me! He's probably one of my favorite people ever. I gave him my email and said he could practice his English on me if he wanted (haha!)

So, around 5:45, I left that area and took the subway north to the meeting point for the Couchsurfing dinner. When I arrived, thankfully, there were already some people waiting. We all kind of chatted and waited for the guy who arranged the dinner. Once he was there, we set off to the restaurant  There were so many interesting people there. Some Canadians who were backpacking through Asia, several Brits, a Scottish guy, a Korean woman; in fact, I may have been the only American. Well, at least in our little group that met and walked together. 

At the restaurant, I picked the BEST table to sit at. There were about 8 of us; 2 guys from England, currently working in Japan as teachers, also a Canadian and an American doing the same thing, the Scottish guy who lives in southern China, a British woman who lives in Shanghai, and another British guy who I don't really know what he did... anyway, it was the best table in the place.

Once we sat down, we immediately got drinks. The beers were more expensive than in other parts of the city, but still not too bad. We chatted and exchanged the usual "what brings you to Beijing, where are you from, etc". Once we had all had a drink or two, we began to play drinking games. The guys that live in Japan all knew each other and instigated the various games. It was a blast. I've no idea what any of the games were called, but one was where everyone laid the hand out, either palm up or down, and the minority group (either up or down) had to drink. I basically lost every single round. Then we played the game where everyone looks down and on the count of three everyone looks up at someone at the table. If you're making eye contact then you must drink. I lost a fair bit in that one, but not so bad. I think there were some other games, but I can't really remember. 

At one point, I got up to go to the bathroom. By then it had gotten quite busy and on the way back to the table, I missed a step going between rooms, and twisted my ankle pretty bad. Luckily, Kerry (the British woman at my table) was nearby and helped me. It was probably the worst I've ever hurt my ankle (as it still hurts now, 4 days later). I felt somewhat stupid, as I felt like I looked like the girl who can't handle her alcohol and stumbles all over the place. But, I wasn't stumbling. I had just missed the bottom step. I was embarrassed but thankfully Kerry was the only person I knew who saw the incident. 

Back at the table, we began our actual meal. It took forever to get each course. And each course was, in my humble opinion, totally weird. Something stuffed into something else; soup with eel balls; something else stuffed into something else! I didn't eat much, but Daniel (the Scottish guy) talked me through some of it. I think there was something about "What would Gordon Ramsey say?" and that motivated me a bit. Regardless, I barely at anything. 

Sparklers we held over the river
By the time dinner was over, the party was really starting to pick up. The restaurant had become more of a bar, and we moved the tables out of the way. At that point, we heard lots of fireworks starting so we went outside. Around the block and down a ways there was a river, all iced over. On a bridge over that river we watched the most amazing fireworks. Maybe it was the alcohol, or just the idea of being in Beijing, celebrating Chinese New Year, but it was amazing. My favorite moment of the trip, I think. I stood outside for I'm not sure how long, probably an hour, without a jacket just amazed at the whole scene. At one point, I went out on the ice and later realized "hey that was probably stupid as the ice could have broke and I could have DIED" but, it didn't break, and I didn't die, and it was a wonderful, perfect moment watching fantastic fireworks exploding overhead. 

After a while, we went back into the bar and got another drink. They were handing out free champagne and of course I had to partake in that. The bar was packed and I left quite soon after that. Daniel and I wandered around the neighborhood and into a few different bars. At one place, we met a golden retriever at the door and played foozeball. By about 3am, I was happily drunk and starting to lose my remaining energy (having eaten next to nothing, and been up 23 hours). Daniel got a cab for me and took me home. I'm not sure I would have made it home without his help, as he spoke a bit of Chinese with the cab driver. We talked for a while in the restaurant part of my hostel, and said goodbye around 4am. 

As I fell into bed, realizing I had been up for 24 hours, I couldn't help but smile at all that had happened in one single day.

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