I’m writing this post on the train to Shanghai (and hoping the man sat next to me isn’t reading over my shoulder…). I’ve just finished my week in Beijing and whilst I was there, I had friends and family asking me when I was going to update my blog. I had every intention of posting something every other day or so but to be honest, I had such mixed feelings and experiences in Beijing that I wanted to write posts in retrospect, rather than writing biased hot-headed moans in the moment. But I also wanted to be honest. Travelling isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, despite what people might portray on social media.
(Heads up – this post contains only the bad bits of Beijing! Best bits will be coming in other blog posts, promise! Writing this was more therapy for me rather than for other people’s reading enjoyment…!)
So here we go. My time in Beijing was definitely a mix of negatives and positives. My first few days were a complete contrast to my last few days.
Things had started to go downhill before I had even arrived in Beijing, starting with me stepping on the plane to Beijing at Doha’s Airport. The passenger seated in front of me was a Cameroonian-Frenchman who recognised me as we had been on the same flight from London. He came over and introduced himself, shook my hand and asked why I was going to Beijing. He also gave me his business card as he lives in Beijing. I said my thanks, wished him a pleasant flight and fully expected him to return to his seat. Instead, he asked me if he could sit in the empty seat next to me. It seemed like an odd request but I couldn’t see any reason why not so I said he could if he wanted.
He then started talking and talking and talking about himself. Some things were interesting; others were just a little egotistic. At this point, our plane was still stationary on the tarmac. I nodded politely at the things he said but wasn’t keen to encourage further conversation and deliberately kept turning away and looking out the window. He then started questioning me about my life. Things like if I was a student and what did I study, did I speak any other languages, what did my parents do for a living, if I had any siblings. He then asked where I was staying in Beijing and if I would have someone waiting for me at the airport. I made the mistake of saying no one would be waiting for me but I deliberately kept the location of where I was staying vague and pretended I couldn’t remember. At this point I started feeling uncomfortable.
He then offered to drive me to where I was staying when we arrived. I was a bit taken aback but said words to the effect of ‘that’s very kind but I’m ok’. Bare in mind our flight would land about midnight when not many people would be around… He then insisted and asked again where I was staying. I said I couldn’t remember. He insisted again and said he’d help me find out. I said that I would need to buy a SIM card at the airport and that he shouldn’t wait for me. He said he would help me buy a SIM card and then drive me to where I was staying. He wasn’t taking my hints.
Now I started to panic. I pictured me arriving in China alone, late at night, very few English speakers, a rather deserted airport, and this man who would be following me from the plane to the arrivals hall and me not being able to lose him. At this point our plane had just taken off and this man had spent the last 20 minutes talking to me. He then told me how beautiful I was and started kissing my hand. When he asked how old I was and I said 22, he exclaimed how shocked he was and that he thought I was really 15 or 17. I started to feel sick, full well knowing how inappropriately he was behaving whilst believing I was 15 or so. You might be thinking along the lines of ‘for crying out loud Emma, why didn’t you do or say anything to get rid of him already?!’. Bare in mind that first, the seatbelt sign was still on so I couldn’t get up. Second, this situation was so expected that I was just shocked and didn’t know how to react.
As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, I went straight to the toilet to regroup and think what I could do now to avoid essentially being kidnapped and harassed by a man who looked twice my age. (Maybe I was overreacting but the situation really shook me up). I’ve had similar unwanted attention and verbal harassment on the London underground and the streets of London more times than I can count (unfortunately). In those situations, I get off the train and change carriages, find a crowd of people to lose myself in or quite frankly tell the man to ‘fuck off’ as I have done a couple of times in the past. However, here I was stuck next to this man for the next 8 hours and nowhere to go. I decided the only thing I could do was to tell a member of the cabin crew, which is what I did.
I went behind the curtain and I didn’t have to say anymore than ‘the passenger next to me…’ before they understood exactly what the problem was. They said they had picked up instantly that his attention and him moving next to me probably wasn’t appreciated. I also told them that he was insisting on driving me away from the airport and I wasn’t sure how to 100% prevent that when I was alone and not many people would be around. The cabin crew were so lovely and helpful that I just wanted to hug them. They said they would make up another seat for me at the opposite side of the plane on the pretense of me needed to get some sleep and space so the man would no longer be easily able to talk to me. They also said that once the plane landed, I could wait for them, leave the plane together and they would walk with me through immigration and into arrivals to make sure I was left alone. As it turned out, me moving to a different seat to ‘sleep’ was all that was needed and the man never acknowledged me again, thankfully. I even got to meet the Captain at the end of the flight and he was so kind and apologised for the experience and said I could make a complaint if I wanted. I was quite sorry to part with the crew once the time came! Such a nice bunch of people.
Once that ordeal was over, I needed to get a taxi to where I was staying. Beijing hurdle number 1. I made the rookie mistake of not having a Chinese version of my address. The taxi driver also didn’t speak a word of English and I was kind of taken aback when he just kept talking at me in Chinese and repeating the same thing, despite my puzzled looks and obvious Western face. After a while of embarrassed fumbling and panic, I managed to get up Apple Maps on my phone and pointed to where I wanted to go. The maps were still all in English but this seemed just about good enough for him. Miraculously I managed to get to the right place. I was so jet-lagged that I didn’t get to sleep until 6am, long after the sun had risen. I managed to sleep for 2 hours before I needed to get up.
I had stayed in a hotel that night since I knew I would arrive so late but would later that day be moving to the apartment I had rented via Airbnb. Cue Beijing hurdle number 2. Considering how tricky the taxi experience the night before was, I didn’t have a lot of confidence that I would successfully get to this apartment, which was stress-inducing. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m jet-lagged, I always feel so much worse than any hangover I’ve had. I feel sick, disorientated, shattered and can’t think straight. I’d also only had 2 hours sleep and could barely eat breakfast. This all set me up for a bad day.
After some directions and map-printing from a bell-boy at the hotel to the taxi driver, I was off and managed to get to the apartment complex. There were many different buildings and I struggled to find the right one, especially as no one around me could give me English directions. Eventually I found what I thought was the right door but I couldn’t get in. The lady I was renting from told me the door had a number-key-pad lock and that I just had to type in the code. However, this door only had a finger-print lock. Just in case, I pulled and prodded different parts of the lock and door handle, wondering if a number-pad would pop up. It didn’t. I went back downstairs to ask someone else for directions. Through some hand gestures, they assured me I was in the right place. I tried again to open the same door but was still unsuccessful. An hour had passed since I arrived and I started to freak out.
To sum up the next two hours, I dragged my luggage in the heat to the nearby shopping centre and tried to ask for Wi-Fi so I could message this lady. Although this café didn’t have any, a really kind man let me use the hotspot on his phone and also got me a glass of water. I messaged this lady and waited and waited for a response. Nothing. It was starting to get late now and I still hadn’t found anyone who spoke English and didn’t know how to communicate my predicament that I may or may not have somewhere to stay that night.
I was now panicking and picturing me sleeping on the streets of Beijing. I shamefully started crying in a phone shop… A kind shop employee came up to me and tried to ask what was wrong/what I needed. I could only tell him in English but he didn’t understand. In the end, I did the only thing I could think of and found the address for the British embassy, pointed to it on my phone and said in broken Chinese that I needed to go there. What else do you do when no one speaks your language and you think you might be homeless?! This man was sooooo lovely and really went out of his way to help me. He took time to translate the address into Chinese, carried my luggage onto the street, hailed me a taxi and gave me a bottle of water to take with me. I guess what else would you do when a crying foreign girl seeks refuge in your shop?! I was so grateful.
It took an hour to get to the embassy and when we did, it was shut. To cut a long story short, I racked up a massive phone bill using internet roaming on my phone, shed some more tears and eventually got in contact with the apartment lady (who was unhelpfully in Australia at the time…). She said she’d get her nearby cleaner to meet and help me but said she didn’t speak English, which kind of made the offer of help not very helpful. I arrived back at the apartment, met the cleaner who took me up to the same door I had been trying to break into. Low and behold, there was the number keypad. To make it appear, the maid gestured you had to touch the screen with the back of your hand, not fingers, and then a touchscreen number-pad appears… HOW WAS I MEANT TO KNOW THAT?! The lady never told me that! I had poked, prodded and pulled that thing earlier in the day with my fingers but had got nothing. I was so infuriated about the hours and unnecessary taxi money I spent running around Beijing but really was just overwhelming relieved that I had somewhere to sleep. I was completely shattered.
It was so far from how I hoped my 3 month Asian adventure would start but I assumed things could only get better, which they eventually did.
I don’t expect anyone to have read to the bottom of this post but I certainly feel better having written it!