Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Beijing Bound

So now I find myself in Beijing. It's been quite a whirlwind over the last couple of days.

Two days ago, I flew out of Melbourne, Australia in the afternoon. I arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia, where I had a layover of about three hours. Then I took an overnight flight to Beijing.

Overnight flights are miserable. You want to sleep, but, personally, it is hard for me to sleep in a chair. So I tossed and turned, sleep-deprived, all night, maybe getting a little bit of sleep.

Then I arrived in Beijing around six in the morning. I was exhausted, and had to figure out how to negotiate my way to my hostel in a place where nobody (or, at the least, very few people) speaks any language I know.

I manged to get on the subway, changing trains twice, and snaking my way through the network of alleys that led to my hostel. It was still early though, I had no confidence that they would let me check in until later in the day. But they did let me check in, only my bed was not ready yet, because it had not been cleaned up from the last person who was there.

That was OK...I could at least leave my backpack there, and hang out in a common area to rest. But then someone showed up to change the sheets right away, and I was able to rest.

I couldn't really sleep, just rested for a while.  But then I felt invigorated and ready to go. Then I looked online, and my brother sent me a photo from Tiananmen Square that he had taken on a visit last year, and he asked me to take the same picture, so we could share footsteps in the same place. So now I had a destination.

What I didn't realize was that there are random security checks, like at the airport, at subway stops, on the street, and pretty much wherever the authorities feel like putting them. And you don't necessarily get to go where you want, because there are security barriers and corridors set up everywhere.

When I got to Tiananmen Square, it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. It was right across the street, but I couldn't just cross the street. I had to walk for about a half hour in a maze around, above and below the street, through security checks, until I got there.

So I took the pic from the same spot as my brother, and walked around snapping more pics. But sometimes there are uniformed and plain clothes folks who don't want you to take pics. And sometimes they don't want you to walk in a certain direction, or to go back in the direction you came from to exit. So I had to be herded through the approved corridors for several hours before I could get out, with no clue as to when or where that would happen.

At one point one of the many guards caught my eye, and motioned to me to come over to him. I did so, and he proceeded to interrogate me quite efficiently for about ten minutes in really good English. Whenever I have a vague answer, he followed it up with skillful cross-examination to get the answer he wanted to extract from me, until he was done, and he sent me on my way with a smile and good wishes.

I did see some really cool stuff. I saw the Mao mausoleum, the area around the Forbidden City (which I couldn't get into because it was closed on Mondays...I didn't find that out until later; I just got an outstretched palm from a guard indicating prohibited entry, with no explanation. Then when I tried to turn around and go back the way I came from, two plainclothes guys who looked like high school kids yelled at me to stop and motioned me in a different direction. I asked them how I get out, they just kept pointing in that direction, which, yes, eventually led out once I followed all subsequent directions).

Finally, I emerged from the Tiananmen labyrinth, into a shady neighborhood. I say that, because the first thing that happened was that a really beautiful young woman who spoke good English sidled up to me, made small talk, and than asked me to have a beer with her, because she was by herself visiting from the north of China. My scam radar went up; I don't know what the deal was, but it really did not seem right at all. I started being alert for pickpockets, undulating my body slightly as I moved, but that was not the con here. I started thinking about things like spiked drinks, and waking up in an alley with a jagged scar along my side, and I begged off, saying I was tired and needed to get back to where I was staying.

As soon as I gave an unequivocal no, she left almost immediately, with none of the social graces associated with a goodbye, obviously searching for the next mark for whatever the hell was going on, which I'm still baffled about.

Then the tour guides stayed coming on strong. I really didn't want to book tours in the street, so I got away from their extreme persistence as soon as possible, taking their cards.

Then a second woman started walking along side me, with almost the same spiel as the first, almost word for word, except this time she wanted to have coffee. Only this time, there was a snatch-and-run right in front of me as she was talking, as some guy grabbed a bundle of goods on the sidewalk and hightailed it out of there, and another guy started screaming after him as he disappeared into the crowd.

I said no again, and she immediately exited. I was thinking, I've got to get the fuck out of this neighborhood. Obviously this place was a net at the funnel opening from Tiananmen, and I didn't want to be a speared fish. I started walking really fast. And then a THIRD woman pulled the same "want to have a drink with me" thing.  I was really firmly negative about it,  and just walked off rapidly.

I'd like to think I'm just a superbly charming guy, and women just approach me on the street because of my magnetic personality. But experience tells me otherwise. I don't think it was prostitution, either. It was some kind of lure into something bad, and I don't really know or care what, except that I don't want to be part of it.

So I walked around some more in some other areas once I got out of the scary neighborhood, having experienced both the security scene and the criminal scene, superimposed right over each other.

The next day, I went to an office across town to pick up some train tickets for my further journeys, and I stumbled across the Beijing inner city wall from the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s. More security stuff, but lighter than yesterday. Or maybe I'm more used to it now.

Anyway, I'd just like to say that the glorious People's Republic of China is like my kind, generous, loving uncle. The more than twenty airport-style security checks I have undergone in the past 24 hours are for our collective good. When somebody tells me not to walk in a certain direction any more, it is to protect the motherland and glorious fathers. And when I can't simply cross the street, but must walk through a two-hour maze to get five meters from where I was standing, surely it is because of dangers that a mere peasant like me can't possibly be aware of. When I am ordered not to take photographs, it is on the part of the generous leaders of this glorious and strong nation realizing that every story must be told the correct way.


  1. Glad to hear the "loving uncles" are looking after you, Stuart. ;-)

    "So I had to be herded through the approved corridors for several hours before I could get out, with no clue as to when or where that would happen." This sounds positively Kafkaesque!

    As far as the nice ladies asking you to have a drink with them, my guess is that it could be a variation on a scam which has been quite common in Central and Eastern Europe for some years. The way it usually works is that a girl stops you in the street to ask for directions (in English). She pulls out a map so that you can help her find the address. Once it's located, she then invites you to join her. You have some drinks together and, lo and behold, when the bill arrives you find out they have been charging you "VIP" prices and you now owe 2000 euros--or else! And they'll happily escort you to the ATM machine if you don't have sufficient funds on you.

    1. I got caught in a variation of that scam in London a while back. A woman who looked like a meth addict sat at my table in a bar, started yakking my ear off about uninteresting stuff, and them asked if I minded if she ordered a drink. I told her she could do what she wanted, but I didn't have any money if she was expecting me to buy her one. She ordered a drink anyway, when I got up to leave I was stopped by two big guys who presented me with a bill for 500 pounds. I got out of it, but was briefly kidnapped, and can't say on here how I made it out without compromising my security. But it's a great story if I ever have the chance to tell it in person

  2. There is another scam I encountered in Paris in which a beautiful woman comes up to you, compliments you, and starts touching you all over, to distract you from the fact that several children are scurrying around you picking your pockets.

    1. That happened to a hostel mate, not to me, thankfully.

  3. I think next time someone tries to stop me in the street with this kind of crap, I'll speak only Spanish, with one or two halting words in broken English. :-)