I was the only Westerner on the flight from Singapore to Xianyang airport on a China Eastern flight, and one of only a handful from Xianyang to Beijing. I was sat on the aisle seat when a ruddy-faced woman ploughed into my arm as she wobbled down the aisle, sending the orange juice I was holding flying and drenching my pants and pooling near my groin area. She didn’t even apologise. You had to laugh. Welcome to China.
I arrived at the airport in Beijing at 2pm. It had been a long couple of flights, long waiting times. I’d left Singapore at 3am. I got the train from the airport to the Haidian District in Beijing. It took me a while to find my hotel – Michael’s House – but I managed eventually, thanks to asking 10 people the way, some of whom ignored me, some of whom pointed me vaguely in the right direction, and one kind soul who helpfully telephoned the hotel and asked directions for me. I should have remembered the printed map the manager of the hotel had emailed me. It turned out to be only 10 minutes from the subway station I’d emerged from, Jishuitan. Michael’s House is a traditional courtyard style hotel situated in a rough and ready neighbourhood down a narrow alley that looked like it wouldn’t be a safe place to walk down right now, in the grey cold Beijing afternoon, let alone on a cold, dark Beijing night. Thankfully, once stepping inside the front door I felt cheered instantly by the warm feel of the place, the plush sofas, reading tables, and Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. All the rooms are centred around this lovely courtyard. The first question the cheerful receptionist asked me, cryptically, was: “Do you practice magic?” I didn’t know how to respond. I discovered that randomness is nothing strange in China.
My room was lovely. Small, cosy, a tea pot, green tea and 2 small cups on a tiny table next to the double bed. I made myself some delicious tea. I was so cosy I didn’t really want to leave, but I forced myself out into the bitterly cold day to go for a wander. Hou Hai ( or ‘Back Lakes’) is a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel, and centred around a pleasant lake, which was frozen in places. Skeletal trees clawed at a bleak and icy sky, as though trying to grasp the tiniest bit of warmth that might be left. Grey buildings dotted the side of the lake, with the occasional temple for variety’s sake. It was exactly as I’d imagined Beijing to be.
Night falls fast in the winter. I strolled the path at the side of the lake, pangs of hunger beginning their torment, and found a fantastic Lebanese restaurant (of all places) near the lake, replete with Middle Eastern lute player serenading diners, and kebabs on the menu. Che Gavara adorned the walls, strangely, and young student types from China and other countries in brown coats chatted animatedly kicking back on the sofa. The ‘new’ Beijing post Olympics certainly seems more multi-cultural if this was anything to go by. I ate a lamb kebab with rice and skewers of meat and chicken as I listened to the mesmerizing voice of the lute player and wondered if I really was in China.
Leaving the restaurant was like being slapped across the face with a brittle, icy fish. I walked head bowed into the night and towards the Hou Hai bar strip. “You want lady?” asked a pimp as I approached the comforting sight of neon lights, their reflection cast in the lake full of empty promise as neon lights often are. I politely declined. Every bar I walked past had a huge glass front where you could see live music – a girl alone with a guitar, a duo, or even a full-blown rock band. They performed looking mainly quite depressed, and as I looked in through the floor to ceiling glass panes I was reminded of being in an aquarium. Young chaps with smart trench coats and bleached blonde hair (well, more ginger really) stood at the front of each bar trying to lure you in. It was fucking freezing so I didn’t take much persuading. I found a place selling shisha and Tsingtao.
Hou Hai was boring me. It was lovely, but too tranquil. I didn’t have a date, I was alone. I needed more. I went to the main road to try and get a cab. I got talking to a German guy who had been waiting some time. “Is this a good place to get a cab?” I asked. “I don’t think so, they keep driving past me” he replied, shivering. “They don’t understand where I want to go.” I hopped in the next cab that came by, while the one he tried to get once again rejected him. Another victory over the Germans! We drove off as the German cast me a final, icy glare. I wonder if he ever got home that night. I handed my driver a piece of paper with the address of where I wanted to go written in Chinese – a fashionable area called Sanlitun, in the Chaoyang District. We drove down the busy, dark streets, full of traffic, people and life. Around the dominating futuristic Saniltun village shopping arcade, which was all international brands lit up in glaring neon that might as well have read ‘Keep Out’ to me, there are lots of narrower, very busy streets flanked by minimalist bars, trendy cocktail joints, ice-cream shops and coffee shops all stacked on top of each other. I found a place called Cheers Bar, full of African guys each with a Chinese girl dressed like they were in a Hip Hop Video hanging off them. It was only 15 RMB here for a rum and coke, the music was sexy RnB and commercial hits and it reminded me of the Playpen in Osaka. Small, smoky, sleazy. Hit Bar Blu – trendy place with a good vibe and a good mix of locals and foreigners. Had an expensive Blue Lagoon. From here I went to Smugglers Café – a place full of English teachers, Latinas, and hungry Chinese girls hunting foreigners, and a rough and ready vibe. I got a flashback of myself 10 years ago as I watched the young lads, eyes wide, naïve and excited in this foreign land, chat to exotic beauties. From here I popped into Migas Mexican restaurant and bar in a place called Nila Patio. Mcdonalds completed my cultural experience on the first night in Beijing, and I got a taxi home. Sleep didn’t come easy. Neon lights had been turned on beneath my eyelids.