“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Day 1, Tuesday: Meeting my Host
The bullet train to Beijing took about 6 hours from Shanghai, this, more than anything else, made me realize how enormous china is, giving how close the two cities look on a map. At “Beijing South railway” station I took the subway to “Jinsong” station where I waited for my host. Sitting on my backpack while watching people in a rush back from work, it was around 5 pm, I took another look at my host picture just to see if I could spot her before she would, and yes I did, going for the hug I had to take of the smaller backpack on my front first. I was her first guest, a risk not so many couchsurfers are willing to take.
After the first 30 minutes, I could see how she was acting like it was a job, a mission, checking every 5 min if I was ok, It was a bit funny actually, “-You are VERY organized”,was the only phrase I could think of to let her know to calm down. We hopped on a double-decker bus, the only one I saw in China, no way I would confuse it with another.
So more about Bowen, a Chinese girl, my age, living in her university campus, and no I didn’t stay in her dorm, I stayed in her aunt’s appartment who was out of the country. How lucky! I got to stay in my own bedroom, in a pretty nice condo. It felt good to have a closet for a change, and to take out everything from my backpack was quite a special moment.
With tired legs I followed Bowen to a nearby market. I immediately attacked a food stand, my empty stomach craved those grilled chicken sticks, but Bowen was worried I would get sick, so I listened to her advice, I knew I would be coming back to this night market anyway. Vegetables left and right, some I never seen before. Yet My biggest surprise was to spot a kind of pancake I thought was 100% Moroccan. It was both a disappointment and a happy discovery. “Msaman” in Morocco was called “Bing” in China. A bite here and there trying to save some for later. Around me were staring faces I already got used to.
Back home, dinner was served, two bowls of white rice, tofu, chicken, and some vegetables I tried to eat out of courtesy. We talked about our lives, my plans for the next week, and where would I go the next day. Bowen had a translating app in hand which she used pretty often, I encouraged her to put it aside. and to spit out words until I understand.
Day 2, Wednesday: The forbidden City
After a good night sleep, I got up and cooked my breakfast, three eggs, a couple of toasts, a banana, and an expired lemon juice, apparently in China if it is not 1 or 2 months past the expiration date, it is alright, and my rule is, do as the locals do. So was I risking it ? Maybe. On the table, a blueprint Bowen left me to not get lost on the way back home from the metro Station. There was no WiFi home, only a USB stick I could use in my computer, so I had to go almost every morning to Starbucks to find some dates through my Iphone apps.
To get to the Forbidden city, I had to take a bus then the metro to “Tian’anmen east station”, taking the bus was the challenging part. Understand: Adventure doesn’t have to be jumping out of airplanes or cliffs, it can just be hopping on a bus, taking a chance and following your guts. Taking the metro in Beijing was a pain in the ass, because you go through the same security measures as taking a flight, so I had to scan my backpack every time. At “Tian’anmen” square, I headed to the main Gate of the forbidden city a huge portrait of “Mao Tse-tung” to remind locals of hard old times. This place was where emperors lived it was called the forbidden city because you would get your head chopped of if you tried to go inside back then. Talk about an amazing time to be alive. Travel has got much easier than before, yet most people are afraid of leaving their comfortable homes.
Once I got inside it felt exactly like Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul, only with different colors, orange instead of black roofs, besides the fake guides approaching me from time to time. The ticket was quite expensive, so I didn’t bother taking any guide, I entered from the south Gate and got out from the north one to Jingshan Park where I went up to see the view of city. At the top, I was asked to put on a traditional Chinese outfit, the view from up there was pretty amazing. then to the beautiful Beihai park, with its huge lake that had raft teams of ducks.
I spent the whole day going from parks to temples to museums, then through a Hutong where you cannot walk without getting asked repeatedly to hop on a rickshaw, I could easily feel I would be skammed since I was alone, so no thank you. I did not like that you had to purchase a ticket for each park or temple. Wandering around, in no pre-planned direction, I found myself way too far to go back to the same metro station I got off from that morning, so I started asking people for the nearest subway station, most couldn’t answer me in English, until one person stopped and was more than happy to help me, he walked me all the way to the station, then asked to take a picture with me, we talked for a bit, he was the kindest stranger I met. I told him about my trip, It made his day and he made mine.
On my way back home, I got off at the wrong bus stop, it was written in mandarin so I had to count until I would get to stop #12 and that was supposed to be the right one, but I when I saw unfamiliar buildings, I knew I messed up, Bowen’s phone didn’t work well, so I had to rely on myself and since I was the one who had the keys to the apartment. I had to come back before she does because I promised her I would be back before 10pm. and here I was at 9:45 pm and I was still lost, thankfully I had the address written in mandarin so it wasn’t difficult to have someone show where to go.
Day 3 Thursday: 798 art district and Cs meet up.
Upon checking Trip Advisor that morning, I was kind of disappointed having been everywhere in the previous two days. It was time to get creative, I messaged a girl from Couchsurfing to show me around, I told her to meet me at the Beijing art expo, thinking that we’ll find some cool galleries, but when we went inside, We were asked for a ticket before we could even have a glimpse of what it was all about, so we left, the art expo was not far from “Tienanmen” square, once we were out, there was a huge crowd protesting in front of a line of nonreactive guards. “This is very usual”, Len chin explained.
We moved to the 798 art district, this place was really awesome. Many cool artsy shops, hand made sculptures, paintings, and more. I tried to not buy any souvenirs but this place was the exception to the rule. For lunch, we had a huge fish dumped in a mixtures of hot vegetables, heated on a stove while we were eating.
Day 4, Friday: The Great Wall, “Samantai”
I am not an early riser, If it weren’t for my disciplined host, who insisted that, to be able to come at home the same day, we have to wake up early. Bowen was in charge of everything, she planned it all the previous night, she explained to me that there is several spots where you can see the great wall, and that the closest one to Beijing is so crowded that you cannot even take a picture without having people on the background. she added that to go to a less crowded place, it would take us all day. I didn’t think much about it, and setup my alarm clock to 7am.
In the morning, we first went to a supermarket for snacks, Then to the bus station. 2 hours later we got dropped off at the last stop. dozens of locals almost blocking the door shouting words that seem to be nearby towns. they all used their own cars as taxis. Many approached us particularly because ,well, I was the tourist in their eyes. Bowen ignored them and their ridiculous suggestions. She was looking for a bus, she talked to the only driver who didn’t approach us, he already had people inside his car/minivan, but needed three more people. they were negotiating the price to get us to the great wall (Samantai). She waived at me to get in, I wasn’t very comfortable about it because I preferred to wait for the bus to show up.
The car was already packed, yet, not moving because the driver was waiting for passenger number 10. the seats were old wooden benches, I had to sit on my jacket. Bowen got along with the driver, 30 minutes of decoding mandarin words and laughter here and there. The car stopped and we had to get off thinking it will only take us a 10-15 minute walk to get to our final destination. 45 minutes until we saw the first village where we asked some old women sitting under the sun if there is any bus stop nearby. “It’s here” they pointed to a sign, few minutes later the bus we were supposed to get in at the bus station was coming. The ticket was not even a dollar.
Off the bus, we first walked though this small village still in construction. it was redesigned after the original that was back when the wall actually had a purpose. The hike was not intense but when we were up there, the view was breathtaking, it got better and better as we rose higher. 2 pm already, Bowen said that we could stay for about an hour. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, Contemplating the view and trying to take it in as much as I could, I would stop for about two minutes and observe with continued attention to every detail.
On the way back, we took the 2 buses back then a taxi once in Beijing because the public transportation ends around 10 pm. home found us at 11 pm, what a day!
This was another time I felt a sense of accomplishment since I started my trip, besides setting foot in Tokyo
Day5, Saturday: Heaven’s Temple, an acrobatic show and discovering the city’s nightlife.
Bowen, being the great host insisted on showing me a place before she leaves Beijing later that day. she said it was a park/temple, I was not particularly excited to get up early for that, but I was being a good traveler and taking chances is what it is all about. it took a ticket to get inside,again. First I could see old people from a distance, others playing chess. groups in circles playing with their feet not letting this feathered thing fall in the ground, I did that for years in my neighborhood, in Morrocco, but with a proper ball. Bowen talked to a lady, then came to tell me they wanted me to try it. I didn’t hesitate to join them. What blew my mind was this old women of at least 80 years old passing the thing with a little trick or a jump. it was great to see how happy these people were, not to mention how fit they were.
We moved to the temple of heaven. and suddenly too many tourist appeared, big groups, those tours just remind me how awesome my solo trip is. While looking at the roofs I noticed some typography that looked exactly like arabic, only it did not make sense. Bowen explained that during a dynasty when an emperor was from a north part of china where people spoke a different language than mandarin or cantonese, this led the conversation to religion, Bowen had no idea was muslim, she was surprised, she confessed that if she knew that before, she would not probably host me. I was happy I could enlighten her a bit about my religion. She explained to me how the government do not want people to be Buddhist anymore because it is against their interest.
We had lunch together at a japanese fast food restaurant, she left to her university and I met lea, a Chinese girl I messaged on an online app, she was cute. we met in “dongdan” metro station which was just a bus ride from my place. she said we have to wait for her friend. she explained she was afraid I wouldn’t understand her, and that her friend spoke better English. another awkward day, I thought. Her vibe, movements and the way she looked at me when she talked showed me immediately that she was attracted to me.
When her friend came We tried to take a selfie with my camera but I realized I left my SIM card in my computer so we had to go back home, the funny thing was taking the bus with the girls, they told me they never do that and they always take taxis to move from place to place, ironically I was being the local, and then it hit me how the same scenario would happen in Morocco, girls would not want to take the bus because it is not fancy, we got off at the wrong bus stop, and we had to walk a lot, both girl had high heels, they were talking most of the time in mandarin, at one point I could feel their concern even if I did not understand the language. Each minute they would ask if we’re we close yet, when we got to the building I asked them to go up with me but they refused, I expected that, I got the memory card and we took a taxi this time, but only to get stuck in traffic for 30 min or so, we didn’t get to our destination, not even halfway, and the ride costed us a lot, we were 3 so it wasn’t that bad.
They took me to Nanluoguxiang, it was an old neighborhood with traditional shops restaurants, the place we chose to eat was really cool. The girls ordered too much food, with a full belly I had to go back home to move from my place to a hostel, because I wanted to discover Beijing night life, Sanlitun youth hostel was downtown for only 40 yuan a night, less than 10 dollars, it was very tricky to find the place, it had no sign and I almost went crazy before finding it. After settling my backpack, I took a quick shower and I went to meet Lea to see an acrobatic show, her friend didn’t come even if she already purchased 3 tickets, before the show started I tried to pay lea my ticket, but she refused. How awesome!! Chaoyang Theatre Acrobatics Show was amazing, definitely one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. It was far better than I could ever expect. 2 hours felt really short.
Back to my hostel, I put my bag camera, and get out to discover the nightlife. Sanlitun was full of these bars where a girl would sing and or dance and people would be at their tables watching the show. I was looking for clubs. For the first two, I couldn’t stay inside for more than a minute because of the smoke. I had another name of a club recommended to me by a Chinese girl I use to go out with back in Canada, the club was called Mix. It seemed fancy, the ticket was 50 yuan, crazy expensive but It was one night so I decided I wouldn’t drink to balance it out. The vibe wasn’t that good, girls were basically unapproachable. They would always get weirded out by my straight forwardness. it was not the best night but it was still interesting.
Day 6 sunday: Houhai
I met up with a new girl from Couchsurfing, waiting for her at a subway station, having no clue if I would recognize her. Zhenni was pretty different from her pictures, less cute than what I expected. A bit disappointed but it’s okay, no big deal. We went to Nanluguoxiang, I was sure she sensed my unenthusiasm towards what was supposed to be interesting for a foreigner. It was because I’ve seen it all before, the same shops selling the same traditional Chinese souvenirs. we moved to Houhai by subway,where I got stopped by the stupid security, for what? a deoderant in my bag, I’ve had it for the past week and never faced any problem, I explained that to a cluless Chinese guard, I told Zhenni let’s try another exit, and it worked.
While we were walking we were asked to have a ride on these rickshaws, some were more persistant than others, I would have been more into it if I was slightly interested in the girl, this one particular old man, kept pushing to almost begging us to get on his ride, Zhenni was polite with him but my firm no, at the end, sent him away. I tried the candy strawberry stick for the first time, it was extremely sugary. Houhai seemed quite cool, and has exactly the laid back vibe I enjoy. A River and bars and restaurant from each side. Zhenni suggested to sit in one, I declined, it was midday, what for? I thought. we saw a few street shows, but one got my attention, an old guy playing with sticks and throwing them to his friend, Zhenni felt how curious I was, so she asked the man if I could try. He gave me the sticks, and they engaged in conversation. a while later, a ring of people started to form, it felt amazing to bring the crowd to this man. I was a street performer for few minutes. The man even asked for my picture.
I was hungry so we went to for some noodles after that, a Chinese menu meant delicious food.I enjoyed listening to Zhenni crazy stories in Sri lanka. She was also planing a trip to Kenya, which I had no idea it was as expensive as a 300$ per night hotels.
Day 7 Monday: Saying goodbye
My last day in a city is always a lazy one, it’s the day you don’t want to get up from bed until you starve, same breakfast different day. My phone in hands asking Lea to get some coffee with me, she was busy so she asked me to go to the closest subway station to her campus, which was at least an hour ride, I liked this girl so It didn’t matter, getting to know her better made me fall for her more, she was telling me about her classes, she wanted to be a movie director, was it destiny reminding me to follow my dreams and continue taking acting classes. We made a deal: to cast me when she makes a movie, sounds unrealistic right? Well so was leaving everything behind and going for a trip to Asia.
Everything starts with an idea, 2 years ago I’ve put a picture on my facebook cover, of a beach, I didn’t even know its name then when my brother commented asking where it is. I didn’t want to seem lame, so I did my research and it was phi phi island, thailand, then my bestfriend asked me when are we going there, not in a serious, but rather in a day dreaming way. I replied with the same light mindset. One day.That day came to being when I landed in Thailand after China, Korea and Japan.