Today I leave Beijing for 19 hours in a “hard seat” (the
lowest class on long distance rail travel) to Harbin. Current temperature in
the capital of Heilongjang: -28c. I’ll get in tomorrow morning with the
challenge of finding a hostel 5 miles out of town that doesn’t seem to be
listed on any review guides whatsoever.
I’ve overspent in the capital, both duck restaurants and the
mega buffet didn’t come in cheap.
Luckily the subway is a mere 2p for any
distance which has helped. My Beijing Yoghurt addiction too didn’t add much
expense, being around 30p for a pot.
My attempt to get back on track will be using buses rather
than taxis in Harbin. Taxis in China, like Singapore are extraordinarily cheap,
the difference being most Singaporean drivers would be horrified if you thought
they were taking a 300 mile detour with a speeding meter. Here, it’s expected.
My only Beijing taxi experience so far wasn’t a positive one.
Leaving the Temple of Heaven I took a wrong exit but carried
on walking in the hope of finding a subway station. Literally four exhausted
hours later in some distant suburb populated by increasingly rural looking
peasants I gave up and flagged down a cab giving the name of the nearest subway
station to my hostel.
“Dongsu” the driver indicated the rear seat and u-turned
into the middle of the city traffic at 60mph.
I’m no stranger to dodgy cab experiences. My only visit to
Los Angeles in 2003 while Greyhounding around the US saw a would-be scammer
(borderline armed robber) demand $80 to leave the bus station before telling me
he had a gun in his glove compartment. I didn’t pay. His timing was awful. We
hadn’t left the terminal hence there were marshals standing inches away from
the car. Had we been on a busy freeway on the other hand…
Being a Londoner but not having a broad accent I’m also
often mistaken for a tourist back home. One driver told me to wait while he
finished his lunch, meter rocketing upwards the whole time.
I wasn’t in a rush. I simply let the meter speed and then
when he’d belched and thrown his kebab carton out of the window, pointed out he
might like to reset the clock.
Back to January 2014 and Beijing. No expert to this city
obviously I was still fully aware we were circling the downtown area with no
meter. It was freezing outside and warm in the confines of the cab so I reached
for two 20 yuan notes (he wasn’t getting any more), sat back and enjoyed the
views. Eventually we passed a subway station.
“Which is about 5 miles back that way?”
That particular Engrish comment was missed on him. He
shrugged and sped up.
I coughed, produced my camera and took a shot of his licence
number and badge.
In London that would’ve elicited scorn and probably
hysterical laughter from the cabbie but this is China and the police have a
reputation of getting slightly erm “over excited”
The driver realised I wasn’t messing about and pulled in at
“200 kwai” (£20)
“No meter” I indicated the switched off display
sympathetically and handed him one of the 20 yuan notes, making sure it was
nicely crumpled first, meaning he’d have to go to the effort of replacing it at
He began to protest and then MIRACLE! At the touch of a
button the meter bleeped and came to life displaying a clear “210 RMB” I laughed, you had to give it to him, that
He laughed too.
I laughed again.
We laughed together.
“200 yuan, you pay”
“But you didn’t take me to Dongsi”
“No it bloody isn’t!”
Eventually I got bored. It was cold, he had the luxury of
arguing from his nice warm cab, I was outside and needed a roast duck fix. I
turned and walked away.
I’m generally a confident traveller, obviously it depends on
the destination somewhat. Had I been in some tinpot hellhole like Congo or
Middlesbrough or somewhere equally as insane I’d have thought twice and
probably just given the required money but I trust the Chinese for the most
part. There’s little chance of getting gunned down in full view of the masses
here. (Ok ok, yes…but let’s not go there on a monitored connection!)
My scariest experience happened in Amsterdam aged about 16
and saw me hiding for three days. To-date only about three people know about
that. I might revisit it in a future blog.
Back to now and I’m sat drinking a Green tea (it tastes so
much BETTER than the crap we get at home!) trying to summon up the energy to go
I have to drag my bag on the rush hour subway, find the
railway office, exchange my bits of paper for a ticket and then hopefully board
the right train. The problem is I don’t particularly want to leave Beijing.
I feel like I could easily spend at least another week here.
I’m comfortable in it’s weirdness. The people are fantastic. Similar to
Moscovites in being dour and unsmiling yet incredibly kind and genuinely nice
at the same time. The one exception was a guy in the market who screamed “Nihow
Lauwai” and hugged me. Being a suspicious bastard my hands immediately hit the
pocket where my money and camera was. Chances are he was just being nice but I
don’t take chances.
Pleasant as Beijingers are there are scams here. I’ve been
approached multiple times in tourist heavy areas by attractive young women
wanting to “practice their English”
The scenario is they take you to a tea house where you spend
the afternoon, come leaving time you find yourself presented with a bill for
thousands of yuan, stupidly at the beginning while engaged in a discussion
about the difference between European and Chinese credit/debit cards you handed
yours over…didn’t you?
I like to get to know the locals but that one is probably
more obvious than the classic Nigerian Prince email! If you fall for either you
really should stick to guided tours, preferably somewhere like Rhyl.
So will I be back to Beijing?
Yes. Definitely. Summer 2015.
More in a future blog about that particular plan. In just a week I have come to love this city
with it’s fried scorpions on every corner, it’s insanely crowded underground
and it’s bizarre customs (old men attacking tin cans with enormous whips on
every square?) Harbin will be an interesting experience with unique challenges
but it will have a lot to live up to if it wants to compete with the capital.
I originally wrote 'Every Han for Himself' for the now closed Travelpod site. In January 2014 I was lucky enough to able to tick off a long held bucket list ambition by visiting both Beijing and the Harbin Ice Festival.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.