The arrival at Beijing International Airport was uneventful. There were some slow moving lines at the immigration checkpoint, but the Chinese officials soon changed some of the foreigner lines over to general entry lines, and I quickly made it through. It continues to be a mystery to me why some lines would move so much faster than others.
I would have liked to have been Zachary Auerbach today. There was a hostess at the airport who kept walking around baggage claim with a white piece of paper with his name typed on it. The third time she walked by, I looked a little closer at it. Apparently, she worked for the Ritz-Carlton and was going to take him there. That would have been nice. My Chinese language skills were not good enough to convince her that I was Zachary, so after picking up my bag, I walked over to where the express train from the airport to downtown leaves from. As I walked out of the airport and into the train station, I realized I was not in Portland any more. The blanket of heat nearly knocked me over.
For those of you who have been to Atlanta or Washington, D.C. in the summer, I assume that you have experienced heat like this. Up to this point, on each step of the trip I had been struggling to stay warm. I knew it was going to be hot in Beijing, so I all I wore was a short-sleeve t-shirt and jeans. I paid for this by being cold most of the day. Everywhere I went had the air conditioning turned up. The Max train, the PDX airport, the United plane, the SFO airport, the Air China plane and the PEK airport were all quite cool. The plane from PDX to PEK was especially cold and even after I finally found a blanket, I still struggled to keep warm. Walking out into the train station was a shock that I was not quite ready for. It felt good to no longer be cold, but I thought “Wow! I’m really going to find out if I like heat as much as I claim to.”
The train from the airport, also cold, had few people on it. It took about 35 minutes to get to the Sanyuanqiao station, where I would have to get off of the train and get into the metro system.
At the subway stop, we had to buy new tickets, so I walked over to the ticket machines and stood in line. Sometimes nothing is easy in China. When I got up to the machine, I found my stop and touched the screen to indicate I wanted to buy one. The machine told me to insert bills or coins to pay for the transaction, so I tried to stick in a bank note. Nothing happened. I tried several times. Still nothing. Hmmm. I let the woman behind me try and she had no luck either. A woman standing next to me told me, in English, that I had to use coins in the machine. I’m guessing that the machines were out of change? I looked around. A line of about 20 people had formed at the one ticket booth that had a real person in it. I started in that direction. The woman who had informed me about the coins stopped me and offered me the two coins that I needed to persuade the machine give me a ticket. She said in broken English “I have coins that I, I give to you.” It was a very kind gesture on her part that I had not expected. I happily accepted her offer, thanked her and quickly got my ticket. Into the metro.
I had arrived downtown at about 6:15pm local time. Rush hour had not ended yet, and the train that pulled up to the platform was jammed full of people. I probably should have waited for the next one, but by this time I was ready to get to my destination and I pushed my way on. I did not have any trouble getting myself in, if you consider standing under the doorway with your head cocked to one side as no trouble. My suitcase however, had a little more trouble and I had to shove it in with a sweep from my right foot. As I did, I think I jammed it into a young woman’s legs. I’m not sure how hard it hit her, but I apologized. She did not look happy, and I don’t blame her. I suspect that she even had to straddle the case for the next couple stops, though it was hard to tell with the mass of humanity all jammed together on that train. I had not been on a train so full since being in Rome one time 9 years ago. This time I was less worried about pickpockets.
I had to make two transfers to get to my destination and the first one took a while to move from one line to the other. I’ll see if I can describe to you what it was like. If you are a claustrophobic person, traveling with me today would not have been much fun for you. After leaving the platform, the swarm moved into a tunnel with a low, rounded ceiling. The station was undergoing some remodeling so there was a crowd control fence in the middle of this tunnel to separate the bi-directional flow of people. The swarm that I was in came around a corner only to screech to an abrupt halt. Bottleneck! About 30 yards ahead, I could see an escalator carrying people up and out of the tunnel two at a time. Between where I was standing and that escalator were several hundred people being funneled into the proper width. It looked like a cattle roundup and I probably should have taken a picture. It was also hot. Around 90 with humidity to match. Again, if you are not a fan of close quarters, you might have been nervous. I kept wondering what would happen if there were some kind of emergency. Actually, I kept imagining something like the recent stampede at the Lovefest in Germany. It was a good thing that people were being patient.
Once I made it to the final subway train, I was eagerly anticipating reaching my final destination and setting my suitcase down for a while. It was pretty light for the first bit, but was getting heavier all the time. At Wadukou station, I got off the train and headed for the exit. At this point I was unsure of where the university was at so I followed what looked like some students out of the train station. Mistake. It was my first wrong turn of the day (I always seem to have at least one.) After walking for a while, I did not see any sign of a university. I decided to ask someone and sure enough, I had gone right out of the station when I should have gone left. Oh well, I couldn’t complain too much.
I finally arrived at the university! I had been told to go directly to Dormitory Building #1, since it would be too late to register at the main office. Finding the building was not too hard. I asked a bored-looking security guard at the front gate where to go. He pointed and said something, and the only thing I understood was you (right). I had a map, so I had an idea of where to go. I started off towards the dorm, passing by several buildings and a basketball court that had at least 12 hoops where people were playing. This is where I plan to get my exercise during the trip.
When I reached where I thought the dorm should be, I realized it wasn’t there. Hmm. A short man wearing a duster came up to me and asked me in broken English where I was going. I told him and he said that he would show me where it was. As we walked and chatted, I realized that he had a small digital recorder and was recording our conversation. At first I thought, reporter?, but then it came to me that he was just studying English. He probably listened to our conversation later. The man was very friendly and he took me right to where I wanted to go. I thanked him for his help.
Some students standing nearby asked (in English) where I was trying to go. I told them, and one of them pointed me towards the office. He was dressed in a red Portugal soccer jersey and went inside with me to help facilitate my interaction with the woman at the desk. The woman behind the counter was sitting there, looking somewhat bored. She greeted us and my new acquaintance began to explain to her the situation. Pretty soon she asked me for a paper indicating that I was supposed to be there (I think it was the scholarship award form she was looking for). A paper? Hmm. No one had said anything about needing a paper. I had assumed that the person from the university who had told me where to go would have communicated to the dorm or at least put my name on a list, but my assumption was incorrect. We negotiated with this woman for about 10 minutes, but it was clear that there was no way I was going to stay at that dorm if I didn’t have the right form. I should have known better. China is the land of the bureaucrat, and if you don’t have the right piece of paper, you aren’t going to get anywhere.
Andre Silva (the guy helping me out) finally asked about finding a hostel nearby. He described where one was, a 10-minute walk away, and told me that he would take me there. My suitcase was getting pretty heavy by now but I was encouraged that the journey was about to end. On the walk Andre described to me that he was from Portugal and that he had been studying for a year in Beijing. He loves China hope to stay here when he gets done with the language program. He had previously spent a year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spoke English with almost no accent.
Andre brought me all the way to the hostel and helped me get checked in. When he was sure I was okay, he took off towards the university. Actually, he was going to help a stranger find an ATM on his way back. While I was checking in, some random person stopped and asked where he could find a bank. I guess it was just Andre’s day to help people.
I dropped my stuff in the room, changed into a dry shirt, threw on my sandals and went outside for a walk to look for drink and food (in that order). I wandered around for nearly an hour (it was nice to walk unburdened) before finding a noodle restaurant close to the hostel. I entered in and am finding that my Chinese is definitely good enough to be useful, but bad enough that I can always use help. Gestures are still important.
After supper I headed for the hostel. It was only about 9:30 but I was ready for a rest. I will describe the hostel to you in a later post. It is the most, interesting, place I have ever stayed at and I think I have a better idea of what life in prison might be like. After a quick shower I tried to watch a couple of minutes of the China-Angola basketball game on TV, but sleepiness quickly overcame me. I headed to bed and crashed.