Small-Town Beijing (Last Day, Part 1)

Have you ever had a day that you still cannot believe happened? My last full day in Beijing was like that. After finally getting to bed at 5am the night before, I woke up at 10am with big plans for my last day. There were still a couple of things I needed to buy for my family so I decided to go to the Silk Street market, a famous place in Beijing where foreigners go to bargain for cheap knock-offs of luxury brand goods. My second goal was to get a haircut. I hadn’t been to the barber in a while, and I figured that between my mediocre language skills and the natural flair for creativity that most hairstylists have, I might end up with a haircut worth writing about.

BLCU is in the northwestern part of Beijing, and the market is about an hour away by metro, a couple miles east of Tiananmen Square. (I always reference Tiananmen, because on a map of Beijing, Tiananmen sits at the center of the rectangular city that surrounds it). By taxi, it is about 15 miles (22km +/-) and I was too cheap to get a taxi by myself (A taxi costs about $10 US, and the train, $0.30). So I took the train.

There were seventeen stops between me and my destination, plus two transfers, so the trip was going to take a little over an hour. I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and there was only one stop after the second transfer, so I decided to skip the last stop and walk to the market. That way I could get something to eat and see a new neighborhood (another opportunity to wander). Including the subway ride, the walking and lunch, I expected to be at the market by 1pm.

One thing about taking the subway is that it’s always tough to know where you are when you leave the station. Each stop has a map so that travelers know which exit they need to take, but even with the map sometimes you don’t pick the right one. I looked at the map and decided that exit B2 would put me right where I needed to be. I would come up out of the ground and take a right. From there the market would be easy to find.

When I exited the station and looked around, I was surprised to see where I was. Unbeknownst to me, I had gotten off at a stop that was close to the iconic CCTV tower. I was surprised to see it because Roberta and I had by chance stumbled across the same tower after dinner the night before. Before leaving the station, I had no idea that the market was anywhere near the same part of Beijing as the tower. I was glad to have found it again. The tower is much more impressive during the daytime. It looks like two Mongolian wrestlers, locked together at the shoulders and twisting as if they were about  to fall. I snapped a couple of photos walked on, my back to the tower.

CCTV Tower

After walking for about a half an hour and not arriving at the silk market, hunger overtook me and I turned onto a side street in search of food. That’s another rule for wandering: you can’t wander too long on an empty stomach. You get tired too quickly and the joy of seeing new places disappears. After a hearty lunch of spicy stir-fried chicken and peppers, I felt much better. I left the restaurant with a renewed vigor and spirit of adventure, heading back towards the path that I was on before.

Fuel for a weary wanderer

One of the streets I walked on cut through a beautiful apartment complex. The towering new buildings were separated by lush manicured gardens, with waterfalls and white marble statues surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. It wasn’t your average factory workers’ dorm complex. The house prices listed in the windows of realtors in the neighborhood ran from the mid-$500k (US) up into the millions I wondered who could afford these places. Was it the white-collar professionals who were sitting at the next table while I was eating lunch? I doubt it.

After walking for another twenty minutes or so, the sun was getting hot (it was another nice day in Beijing, with only a hint of brown air), so I crossed the street to get into the shade of the buildings. I walked in the shade for a few minutes, and then suddenly froze. Oh sh--. I looked up at the building next to me,  then slowly turned my head and looked down at the building’s shadow. Hmm. . .It had just dawned on me that ever since I left the train station, I had been walking south and not west. I hadn’t reached the market yet because I was on the wrong path! Doh! I really didn’t want to go back up along the main road back to the subway stop, so I turned to the west. I enjoyed the shade from the buildings that were on my left, but felt dumb for not having noticed earlier which direction I was walking. Duh! When a country boy goes to the city, he shouldn’t forget all his country survival skills.

I picked up the pace of my walking, because if I wandered slowly, there was no way I would ever make it to the market. The day was beautiful, and I soon left the new neighborhood I was passing through and passed through an area that looked to have been built about 30 years ago. The apartment buildings were lower, maybe 8 stories, with peeling paint and rusted bars around the windows.

Heading west, I reached a bridge that crossed over a cement river channel. I paused on the bridge to take in my surroundings. As I paused, a man came by, pushing a bicycle. I looked over at him and he smiled and gave me the typical “hello!” that you often hear walking down the street in China,  people like the opportunity to practice the English they know. Most of the time the people aren’t looking for more than a smile or a “hello” in return, but this man was different. When I said hello back to him, he asked where I was from. His eyes lit up when I told him I was American. He started asking questions about America and the differences between China and America. He wanted to know the reputation of Chinese workers in America. He said “I heard that in America, Chinese people are very hard working.” We chatted about that and then we went on to talk about economics, culture, politics, education, even space exploration. At some point in the conversation he pulled out his mobile phone and started recording. Not to be outdone, I pulled out my own phone and started recording the conversation too. I asked him some questions in Chinese. He would correct my errors, then would ask me how to say in English whatever I had just said in Chinese.

The conversation lasted about 15 minutes and was the most interesting one I had with any Beijingers while I was there. I was enjoying the conversation, but the market was still nowhere to be seen, so I told him I had to go. Before I went though, I asked if I could take a picture. He said sure and took off his hat to pose. As I raised the camera to take his picture, a thought struck me. Impossible. . . .Wait a damn minute. Are you kidding me? It couldn’t be, could it? I’d better ask. . .

“Do you ever go to BLCU?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes, I go up there to meet people to practice English,” he replied.

I stood there silent for a moment, dumbstruck. There, standing in front of me, on a bridge in some part of Beijing that I had never seen before (nor intended to see this day), twelve miles away from home, in a city of 15 million people, was the man who, on the very first night I came to China, showed me where my dorm was. . . . .!!!!! U-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-e. Beijing is not nearly as big as it seems after all.

When I told the guy about our previous encounter, it took him a second, but his face lit up when he remembered showing me how to cut the back way between the cafeteria to get to the dorm. We both laughed at our fortune and bid each other farewell, saying we hope to see each other again. I was so amazed that I forgot to ask him his name. I guess I’ll just have to ask him the next time I run into him . . .

A stranger no longer. . .

After that, I knew it was going to be quite a day. I hopped down the stairs at the edge of the bridge to a path along the river, and headed northward towards where I thought the silk market might be. At one point the river bent sharply to the left, so I hopped over a wall and back onto the sidewalk outside the river channel. The street I was following left the river and turned north into a typical city neighborhood. I walked a few blocks more, not paying too much attention to where I was. I reached a major road and turned right. About two minutes later, I froze again.

You know how sometimes our brains play tricks on us and as you do something, you think that you’ve already done that exact same thing before? Déjà vu, right? You think you have visited a place before, but can’t remember when or why. Well, at this point I got déjà vu, except that I was certain that I had been in that exact same place before. Twelve hours earlier, to be exact. Strangely, I was standing in the exact same place where we had gotten a cab back to BLCU after getting lost while walking the night before. It was pure coincidence. I had arrived from the opposite direction and had taken a completely different route.

To get a better idea of what had happened, picture that the starting point for the two trips (fairly close to the CCTV tower) is the 3 on the face of a clock, and the point where I was standing is the 9 (the silk market, by the way, is about the center of the clock). To reach the 9 the night before, we had traveled counter clockwise. The next day I went clockwise. Both trips were filled with random twists and turns and both times I had no idea where I was. Ending up at that spot was déjà vu, except that it was real.

Going in circles

By this point, I was pretty tired, but since I had come this far, I decided I couldn’t miss the silk market. If you had come this far, would you have quit? I found a subway station and hopped on the train. It was only one stop to the market, heading east, but I wasn’t about to take the chance by walking this time. At 2:45 pm, nearly two hours later than I had planned (but with a couple great stories), I finally walked into the silk market, ready to shop. My experience at the silk market was a good one, but I’ll save you that story for part 2. . .