I arrived in China in 2005 in a drugged stupor. This was due to the fact that I, who rarely takes sleeping pills, was advised by a friend to take two of the little pills she handed me. Whatever they were, I think a half of one would have sufficed. Fortunately the flight had been overbooked and I was upgraded to business. That was cool, as I actually slept well in my narcotized state. Truly before I knew it, we had landed… I was baffled, to put it mildly. In the airport, I was so groggy that I just floated from one arrival task to the next, including getting in a cab, well NOT a cab, a car to take me to the hotel. JUST what Michelle had advised against. There are poachers at the Beijing airport who come and “grab” you before you get to the official cab line. They usually charge exorbitant rates. The hotel I booked was way downtown in the Hutong, the old district of Beijing…a long ways from the airport and hard to find even by Beijing natives. The ride was both terrifying in my drugged state (where was he taking me, really?) and magnificent (the lights and sounds). Can you imagine! I had no idea where I was going, spoke not a single word of Chinese, and was seriously stoned. But guess what! The driver got me to the obscure little hotel, and the charge was same as a cab. Whew!
The Far East Hotel is a great little place, and was perfect for my first stay in China. Smack in the warren world of old Beijing, it caters to students and budget-minded tourists. I think the rate was $25/night. Certainly comfortable enough, I would stay there again. In fact I might! The lobby was vibrant with many languages, and the reception people were trying hard to accommodate. In the bowels of the hotel, vast cauldrons of boiling water provided guests with, amongst other things, safe water. Decanted into delightfully decorated thermos bottles and delivered to our rooms, brushing teeth and making tea were not health threats. When I stayed in the hotel again in 2007, the thermoses were replaced by those instant boil tea pots in each room. It didn’t feel nearly as safe as the water that had been boiled for a long time. Also, by then much of the Hutong was slated for major destruction, Massive highrises were going up in their stead. It will be interesting to revisit.
I awoke early (3:30) that first morning and went for a walk after my ritual ablutions. Most of the town was still asleep, but not all. The Hutong is very old, and it has much character. One knows where the communal toilets facilities are with no problem (sniff, sniff). I also explored out of the Hutong in a modern neighborhood with concrete apartments. As the sun rose, I watched people doing their morning exercises. Public exercise is de rigueur whether in groups or solo. And I saw men, always men, carrying bird cages, walking determinedly. So I followed one. They meet their friends, who also have birds, and set the cages up fairly near to each other so the birds can have social time, like they are all on a tree.
One unexpected sight, and one that I was to see if in one form or another over and over again, was that of people sleeping in public. My morning meanderings that first day bore witness to workers crawling out from under plastic tarps on building sites and people camouflaged for the night in trash heaps. I don’t know how to process this visual information and find myself haunted by the apparent discomfort as well as the underlying social context.
On the other hand, I was delightfully surprised to see how people in Beijing dote on their dogs. Seriously… What did I think? Hmm. Yup. I had heard the Chinese eat their dogs. Well, maybe some of them find their way to a plate…but not these urban canines.