“In the journeys of our lives, we spend a lot of time going from one place to the next. It is often described as ‘point A’ to ‘point B’. So often, the ‘to’ is devalued, or forgotten. How much of our ‘to’ do we remember, or cherish?”
– Marvin Lee, French Train series, a part of his Black Man Eyes project
I failed to mention that serendipity was on this trip with me. It was on Friday night when I ventured outside, unsure of how to find my destination, I boarded a bus. Certain that I was lost my Chinese co-passengers kindly moved over to offer me a seat. Oh, the humanity! I pulled out my map and showed the kid sitting to my left and he shrugged his shoulders to say ‘I don’t know’. How was I going to find my destination? Then after a few stops the same boy gestured for me to show him my map again. He pointed that the Dongshi stop which would put me on the right course to my destination, the lively, Samlitoon (mispelled), was the next stop. Grateful, I fist bumped the kid and then exited. Delighted, I ran to catch the arriving subway train. I boarded the train and after a short while exited the subway station. Upon walking up the stairs at the subway station near Samlitoon I saw my initials printed on a local Chinese student’s cap. It was a good welcome omen. China wanted me here! I had arrived.
Let’s recap! I went to Beijing last week over my four day weekend. In part one of this blog post I mentioned that I realized several things about China — 1) there are a lot of Chinese people, 2) Schiwuan cuisine is spicier than so-called spicy Korean food, and 3) China like the Forbidden City is vast.
In this post I want to tell you how 1) I finally saw the Great Wall, 2) I nearly missed my flight back to Korea.
I awoke on Sunday, my last full day in Beijing, and checked out of the motel, and set out to enjoy the day out and about. I thought that by that time I had mustered the courage to try scorpion, grasshopper, or tarantulas, but I had not. After my Saturday adventure, and the task I had to undertake when searching for a room for the night, I was not interested in repeating that scenario. After grabbing a bite which included beef noodles and an unappetizing confection I made my way back to the Jade International Youth Hostel. The Jade hostel did not have rooms on Saturday night so I thought I would not be any luckier on Sunday, however, they have a comfortable lobby where I can use wifi so I decided to return there. I felt like a second class citizen, a bum, a beggar, because I did not have a reservation. That feeling of “hurry up and buy” and “go!” came to mind. With no true reason for being there but to siphon their wifi, I tried to bring little attention to myself. If I had any problems, I figured I would remind them that I had stayed there a couple days earlier. I did not need to bother with this however. No one noticed or even cared that I did not have a reservation and that I was in their lobby.
While sitting in Jade’s lobby I remembered that the receptionist told me on Friday if I need to book a room for Saturday night, which I did not not do, I could easily do so via the internet. He mentioned that online reservations are 80RMB cheaper. I pulled up a website and while sitting there made a reservation. I was surprised because I thought I would have to pay 280RMB for an accommodation. I found a dorm room at the Jade that only cost 56RMB (roughly $10/night). It would not be as comfortable, but it was a bed and restroom in a clean hostel for the night.
Again, let’s recap! I paid to sleep in my own room on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Each night cost me 280RMB. I had just found that I could sleep in Beijing for only 56RMB! Shocked, I booked the bed for the night and walked from my seat in the lobby to the front desk. All of those insecure feelings related to my status as a beggar or leech on their wifi diminished. I had redeemed myself. I was their customer again and I had the privilege/right to use their wifi. Chest puffed, I announced: “I have a reservation. I need my key.” The receptionist asked for my confirmation number, passport, and my 100RMB deposit. I received my key and made my way to the smaller, shared, but nevertheless needed room.
I unloaded the contents of my backpack onto the bed — mostly clothes. It was around 12:30pm when I decided that I would make a trek to the Great Wall if it was possible. According to the photo below that I took while in the subway station, the Great Wall can be visited relatively quickly. Unsure, I asked the receptionist. She told me that I didn’t have time to take a tour of the Great Wall. Discouraged I showed her the picture below which has directions to the Great Wall via subway and train. She looked at it and reconsidered her first response. She assumed that I wanted to join a tour of the Great Wall that the hostel has on sale. With little time for that I was just interested in seeing the wall myself. I did not care how I got there. It was my last day and chance to see it; I would get there however I had to.
The receptionist told me it was possible and with that I decided how I would spend my final day in Beijing — visiting the Great Wall (Badaling).
Although I was not alone in this endeavor, it wasn’t until I boarded the S2 train that I spotted the first foreigner who had the same idea.
His name is Tom. I was less interested in greeting him when he first passed my seat on the train, because this was my adventure. I wasn’t interested in sharing it. However, after de-training at Badaling, realizing that I was pretty lost, Tom’s visage was comforting as I believed he felt the same way I did. A Chinese tour guide told us to take a free bus ride to the entrance, which Tom and I did. Upon boarding the bus, I sat next to Tom and introduced myself in the customary style I have become accustomed to: “Where are you from?”
Tom is a nice fella from my grandmother’s native, North Carolina. We spoke the same language, were from the same country, and had the same idea — see the Great Wall. It was a match made in heaven. I employed his help. A couple of times on the Great Wall we helped each other take photos that would best have been accomplished using a tripod, which neither of us had. My most creative attempt was the meditation pose I struck at one landing.
Mission Accomplished (see below).
In The Evening
After accomplishing my mission of seeing, walking on, and taking photos with the Great Wall, I headed back to the S2 train which I didn’t want to miss for fear that I would be stuck in a remote section of Beijing especially when my flight departed at 8:10 am the next morning.
While riding the train back to Beijing, which was more crowded this trip, I sat on the floor near the exit. A curious Chinese man insisted that he practice English with me.
Chinese man: “Where are you from?”
I hoped he’d see that I was reading using my iPad and would leave me alone. However, this did not discourage him.
Chinese man: “What do you think of the Great Wall?”
Me: “I thought it was small.”
Shocked at my response, he gasped. I assured him that I was only joking. Relieved, he continued to inquire about me. Although I was less interested in talking with him, having done so I made a new friend. His friendship came in handy too. At one stop, passengers exited, there was an opportunity for us to move from the floor to seats. Like George and Weezy we were movin’ on up! He was gracious enough to give me the only seat that became available. After arriving at the train station, he was also gracious enough to snap my photo so I would be able to remember these moments.
I learned that his English name is Andy and that he wanted to treat me to dinner. Shortly after he snapped this photo, Tom arrived at this point and surprised me. Delighted, I told Tom that Andy wanted to treat foreigners to dinner. Tom, delighted in the news, agreed to join us. Neither Tom nor I knew where we would eat. Andy planned to take us to his neck of the woods. Even though Tom is a US government employee who had been warned about meeting strangers, and fraternizing with the locals, he quickly ignored those suggestions when offered a decent meal that he would not have to pay for. It was a decision that Tom do not regret. Neither did I.
We devoured, chicken wings, lamb and shrimp kebabs, two bottles of beer (per person), dimsum, edamame (Japanese for soybeans in a pod), peanuts, and beef. I also had a grilled fish to myself. Decadent. Andy, grateful to have two non-Chinese companions at dinner with whom he could practice English, paid for the meal.
With full bellys we exchanged WeChat contact information, said our goodbyes, and rode the subway back to our respective domiciles.
With plans to board a plan at 8:10am and return to the Jeollabuk province where I would teach an afternoon lesson at 3:30pm, I awoke around 4am in order to give myself enough time to shower and walk to the nearest subway station from which I would make my way to the airport. Note: When traveling it is important to know at which terminal you will depart. On this day with little time for correcting errors, I did not know which terminal I would fly out of. This was just another problem that would complicate matters for me on my return to Korea. First, I was too early for the subways. They opened at 5:30am. Sure, there was another train that began running at 5:09am, but it was headed in the opposite direction.
I stood at the station at 5am where I made the decision to take a taxi. Unlike Korea, the Chinese taxis were not easily able to spot. When I did spot a taxi the driver gestured that he was waiting for someone who called the taxi service. It certainly wasn’t me so I was out of luck. Time passed. I began to ponder my options. There were fewer options available as time passed. I needed to take a taxi to the airport. This was becoming apparent. My idea of riding the subway there as I had done on my arrival was not going to happen. Luckily, I hailed a taxi. Luckily, I had a picture of the subway map saved on my iPad. I pointed to the nearest station to the airport. The driver understood my request. I was relieved to have found a taxi and believed I would make it to the airport two hours before my flight. With this belief I decided that I would be let off not at the airport, but at the subway station near the airport where I would exit the taxi and board the subway. I figured it would be cheaper. Once I exited the taxi, and after the taxi took off, I went down the stairs to the subway station only to learn that the airport express wouldn’t open until 6:30am.
If the ride on the airport express would take 1 hour to arrive at the airport, I would have only thirty minutes to board the plane. That was not enough time to check in and head to the gate. I was out of luck. However, there was a group of Chinese who were in a similar predicament. They too arrived at that station in hope of riding the airport express subway to the airport. We all needed a taxi.
A man was there offering to take us to the airport in his car for the same fee. It was his lucky day. I suspected he did this often. With no other option we hoped into his car and were whisked away to the airport. The next dilemma I faced was where to exit once I arrived at the airport.
The driver seemed to think that since I was flying to Korea I was surely flying out of terminal 3.
He dropped me off at terminal 3. With about one hour left before take off, I was rudely awoken by the revelation that terminal 3 was NOT where I was supposed to be. It was terminal 2! I rushed out the terminal to hail a taxi. All the taxi drivers refused to take me to the terminal. Confused, I rushed back inside the terminal to find a sign reading: “free bus to terminals 1 and 2”.
I guess the taxis don’t handle that business. Perhaps they leave it to the airport’s free bus service. I was relieved too because this saved me from spending that last few Chinese RMB I had in my pocket. Time passing, I made it to the correct terminal, 2, and rushed to have my carry-on bag scanned. After a short jaunt I made it to the check-in line. Again I was in luck. My fellow passengers were still in line even with less than an hour to board the plane.
All in all, I made my flight.
Hurry up and wait sums the last part up. Even though I was on my plane, there was a delay and we sat on the tarmac for what seemed like an hour. I made it back to the Jeollabuk province in time to shower, change clothes, and present my lesson.