As our time in Hong Kong drew to a close, we were reluctant to leave behind our gluttonous paradise, but we were also excited to dive headfirst into the great red unknown that is China. We had secured our visas, booked a 24-hour sleeper train direct from Hong Kong to Beijing and purchased a small mountain of snacks and fruit for the ride, and felt as ready as we could.
As we boarded the train, our anticipation grew. Our expectations for China were all over the map, to say the least. We were excited to finally have the chance to eat Chinese food in China, we relished the opportunities we would have to explore the deep cultural history of this vast country and we were eager to meet the people of China themselves.
Our train rolled out of the station at 3:00 p.m. on the dot. As we settled in for the long ride ahead we took stock of our four-berth room, shared with one other person. It was small but functional. The “soft” sleeper beds seemed misnamed, making us wonder if hard sleepers had any padding at all. As we departed the fringes of Hong Kong, our only bunkmate pulled the covers over her head and immediately went to sleep. Apart from our cabin mate’s apparent exhaustion, the rest of the ride was uneventful (spent as it was watching Prometheus and the bulk of the first season of The Wire) and we pulled into Beijing South Station at around 5:00 p.m. the next day.
We were rather unceremoniously ejected off the train onto a barren and dimly lit platform and immediately left to fend for ourselves. Our first order of business was to get some yuan (also renminbi or, as we preferred to call them, China Bucks) from an ATM, as we needed to catch a bus and had no local currrency. As we learned after 30 minutes of fruitless searching and referring to almost entirely useless station maps and uncomprehending guards, there was one ATM outside the station at some point along the vast slab of concrete in front of the monolithic building, that was reached only by delicately weaving around the many people taking shelter under its awning, sprawled out asleep on makeshift mats made from flattened cardboard boxes.
Cash acquired, we bought some pear drinks to quench our thirst as we looked for our bus. The drinks tasted more like medicine than pear, and the cloying, slightly thick beverage did little to refresh. Disappointed and still thirsty, we tramped up and down the street in front of the station, fruitlessly looking for a bus stop with the right number emblazoned on it. The instructions to get to our hostel indicated a bus number and little else, and we were momentarily at a loss.
Eventually we realized our bus ran from a separate area away from all the other buses on the main road and so, after an hour off the train, we were finally on our way. Steph got her first taste of the legendary Chinese disregard for lines and turn taking as she was shoved out of the way by a crowd of people who, immediately after forcing their way onto the bus, ground to a halt and refused to move. She was happy to report that she gave as good as she got, and we managed to find two seats thanks to her willingness to throw an elbow or two.
After the grim spectacle that was Beijing South Station, I was ready to see the rest of the city, hoping that the station was some sort of anomaly. Beijing, the crown jewel of the country, the northern capital and center of Chinese progress and culture had to hold more than a sea of dirty, sad looking people sprawled on concrete waiting for nothing in particular. I had to believe that the station we just left was not indicative of what was to come.
Our bus jerked its way down an enormous boulevard, passing rows of nondescript buildings and a sea of electric scooters, trundling into the heart of the city. As I looked out the window all I saw were gray skies, low functional buildings and pavement. After a half hour on the bus nothing had changed, and my phone’s GPS told me that we were essentially in the heart of the city. So far Beijing felt like a gritty suburb of itself: no graceful sky scrapers, no modern buildings or parks or color other than gray and brown. We rolled by Tiananmen Square and we were treated to a view of an enormous open plaza, rammed with people and ringed by police cars. Gray and dull and flat as far as I could see, I could taste the dust kicked up by 100,000 feet.
We had reached our stop according to the hostel’s instructions, so we jumped off the bus and began to walk down the road, trying to find an underpass to cross the ten-lane highway separating Tiananmen Square from the red-ochre walls of the Forbidden City. This area of Beijing was low and sprawling, nothing feeling very close to anything else, and had I not been looking at a map I would have guessed we were 50 miles from a real city, not in its heart.
We finally managed to cross under the road and began to the walk to our hostel, dodging potholes, puddles of sewage that had seeped up through the manhole covers and the odd pile of unidentifiable garbage in the street. At points the smell of raw sewage was overwhelming and the run-down shops and crumbling roads all blended into an unending sea of gray. Even the trees were a dirty gray from a thick layer of dust.
Our hostel was serviceable overall, though our bathroom tended to smell of sewage, and we didn’t relish the idea of having to use it. To our delight, there was a tiny, fluffy puppy running around that belonged to one of the workers, which greatly improved our opinion of the place and was so far the highlight of our day. After we dropped our bags, we realized we were both very hungry and decided to head out to the nearby night market to see what our first meal in China would hold.
The tourist night market stretched out in front of us in a seemingly endless row of stalls. Lanterns hanging in front of every stall cast a red glow on the throngs of people jostling for position in front of the hundreds of vendors. Slightly overwhelmed, but hoping what we found would be good, we made our way down the row of stalls to see what would be for dinner. What we discovered was that, with few exceptions, every fifth stall was essentially the same thing. So, for 100 stalls, there were maybe 20 that had something unique. Unfortunately, unique usually meant sea stars, scorpions, insects and other somewhat unidentifiable things on sticks. Maybe half of what we saw was something we would consider eating, the rest being a grim sideshow put on for the tourists foolish enough to believe that this was real Chinese food.
Once we got to the end of the row, we saw one vendor that had some good looking dumplings that we hadn’t seen anywhere else, so we placed an order. We got six dumplings and were told we owed 36RMB. Whoa. That seemed a bit high, but we paid up; as we looked at other prices we realized we had been rather badly ripped off. Resigned that it was our lesson to learn, we knew now to always ask for the price up front and we doggedly ate our not particularly delicious dumplings.
Our other food choices were similarly underwhelming, though cheaper, which softened our disappointment only slightly. The one highlight were pillowy soft buns that had been panfried and had delightfuly cripy bottoms. Ultimately, however, we left with a belly full of disappointing food and regret. We were still feeling a bit peckish, so we considered our options. I had read about a place called Wujiang Snack Street, which was billed as a foodie’s paradise and by all accounts seemed like the place for us. Trying to put aside our fears, we looked at our map and realized that snack street was only a few blocks away, so we decided to see for ourselves if the rumors were true.
What we discovered was a scene out of our most gruesome nightmares. Snack street was a narrow alley that was absolutely jammed wall to wall with people, and we were forced to slowly shove our way through if we wanted to make any progress. The stalls were even more repetitive than the night market, and the fare was decidedly more repugnant. Live scorpions on sticks and questionable hygiene seemed to be the order of the night, so we set our shoulders low and made for the other end of the cattle chute called snack street, trying not to get discarded skewers and half eaten “food” wedged in our sandals. For those foolish enough to venture here, abandon all hope and for the love of tetanus, wear closed-toe shoes!
Thoroughly disgruntled, we made our way back to our hostel for the night, feverishly hoping that Beijing was more than what we had just witnessed. We knew we were in a heavily touristed area, which is usually enough to put us on our heels, so we decided to try to suspend judgement until we had seen more of the city. But, after one day in Beijing I didn’t like it very much. It was low, dirty, drab, smelly and visually flat. Everywhere felt like a depressed suburb of the “real” Beijing, a better city that would never actually show itself. The food had been bad and the scenery unremarkable. The main streets were yawning boulevards that were impossible to cross on foot, and every moment you lingered was a moment you risked being run over by one of the thousands of silent electric scooters that ply the streets and sidewalks. It seemed as though the much vaunted Chinese progress had hammered Beijing into a characterless swamp of functional concrete buildings and massive infastructure, leaving no room for the character and culture we came to see. Of course, it was only the evening of Day One, and the rest of this massive city lay in wait, but I was more than a little wary about what was in store for us in the days to come…