Monday, November 24, 2008


I wanted to get an early start in Beijing, so I did something I've never done before-I took an overnight sleeper train from Chengde to Beijing. The train, leaving Chengde at 11pm, arrived in Beijing at the ever-so-convenient hour of 4am. I wasn't thrilled to be woken up at 3:30 by the turning on of my compartment's lights, but it was a relieft to know I'd be escaping the stinky, filthy train. A 62RMB (US$9) train ticket got me an upper berth bunk, however cleanliness and freshness were not included. The bed sheets were grease stained and my pillow covered in hair. The blanket was thick, the kind you know is too big to be washed often. The smell. . .how to describe it? A combination of garbage, dragon's breath, and discount soap. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the stench was determining its source. Was there garbage stowed under the lower bunks? Was it the body odor of the elderly man in the bunk under me? Could it be me? Sniff, sniff. Nope, not me. A good sign and one which allowed me to bury my nose deep in my collar, choosing to breath in thick, stuffy air over the nauseating stink.

I was happy to arrive in Beijing, despite the hour. What's it like to arrive in another city so early? Many of you may know the discomfort of being newly arrived somewhere in the morning. Judgement impaired by the fogginess of your waking brain. The cluelessness. The slight fear of being in a strange place at a dangerous hour. Luckily, these are feelings I never have to experience in Beijing. For a city of it's size, it is remarkably safe. And I know the city well-as well as can be expected of a constantly changing city of 17 million inhabitants that I no longer reside in. All I feel in Beijing is happiness. Happiness at the prospect that the only thing that stands between me and a Mocha Frappae is time (cafe opens at 7am) and not distance (distance from Chengde to nearest Starbucks=190 miles). The happiness of knowing that just about any food option is little more than a subway ride away. Tunisian, Kosher, Burmese, organic-the Beijing dining scene has much on Chengde's (McDonalds, KFC). Only problem is that I have a few hours to kill before I can begin to indulge on all Beijing has to offer.

The Beijing train station. . .at 4am it is uncharacteristically calm. It's still about as busy as most American train stations would be during the day, but that's a far cry from the usual pushing and chaos. Throughout the train station people are sprawled out on mats, soundly sleeping. I tiptoe past them and make way to the exit, moving about freely. Normally I am just part of the herd. Outside, touts are resilient as ever, pushing the newly published 2009 Beijing City Map.

"Yi kuai, yi kuai, yi kuai, yi kuai!" they cry, shoving a copy in my face. Only 15 cents. Still, I'll pass.

I successfully pass the first wave only to be greeted by the second.

"Lady! Hotel! Lady!" they yell, despite my diverted eye contact. Second wave gone. Third wave.

"Taxi! Taxi!" cries one man persistently, "Taxi! Ni qu na'r? Shuo hua!" "Where are you going? Talk!" he demands.

I turn, smile, point to the hostel across the street, and reply, "I'm going across the street."

His jaw drops. He abandons his annoying tout act and opts for treating me like an actual person.

"You should use the stairs over there," he directs me.

"I know, thank you!" I reply while walking away.

"Your Chinese is very good!!!" he screams after me. I almost believe him. Though I can't see him, I'm almost certain he is giving me a thumbs up.

I head over to the 24 hour McDonald's. It's packed with Chinese, most of them napping, others sipping tea. I look up at the menu board and to my disappointement they aren't serving breakfast. It's too early. At least I can get a coffee. I plop down and before long an interesting duo walks in. These two men clearly aren't a Chinese McDonald's typical patrons. One is wearing a large green coat that is commonly worn among migrant workers and young soldiers. The man has a wild look in his eyes and walks with a limp. His friend is poorly dressed and disabled, reliant on a make-shift set of wooden crutches. I am silently rooting for them to go to the counter and order a Big Mac, to prove all my assumptions wrong.

The man in the coat approaches the counter, making unintelligable demands. His friend approaches and the first man backs away from the counter, nearing me. He grabs at a stool that is firmly attached to the ground. Looking troubled, his eyes survey the room. At last he locates an unattached chair and brings it over to the counter for his friend to sit. The second man slumps into the chair, dropping his crutches to the floor, and pulls out a plastic bag. From the bag he extracts several large piles of 1 RMB (15 cent) and 1 jiao (7 cent) bills. The cashiers begrudgingly begin counting them. Meanwhile, his green-coated comrade leaves the counter. He casually picks up a cup of coffee someone left behind before he sits down. Though I know how this will play out, a part of me still hopes. Though the chances are small, the disabled man could his change to purchase extra value meals for him and his buddy. My hope is lost, however, when he leaves the counter the proud owner of large denomination bills.

The sun is finally starting to creep up and I can see the first signs of light outside. It's been a fairly interesting morning thus far and it's only 7am. I leave McDonald's and happily make my way towards my first indulgence-a Toffee Nut Latte.