Well, we left the hotel at noon today, jumped in a taxi and headed to our “Real Beijing” apartment. The driver took us through a mildly harrowing ride through the city (for which I am glad we are not trying to drive through because traffic lights and pedestrian safety seems to be secondary, possibly even tertiary, to driver rights.
Anyway, the driver drops us off on some grotty street and points down an even grottier alleyway. All we have is the address of … Hutong. Hutong means “alley” in Chinese by the way. Barb just starts walking down the alleyway and since we don’t have SIM cards for our phones we couldn’t call our apartment contact. After about 15 minutes it’s apparent that we are just further and further into the bowels of this area and I see that Caleb’s face is registering some mild panic. He even suggested we head back to the spot where the taxi dropped us off. I start saying, “Ni-hao” to everyone who passes us and point to the address written on our piece of paper. They all look and it and shake their heads because it’s written in our English alphabet, not in Chinese characters. My panic level is starting to rise as well!
As we work our way back to our drop off spot Barb suggests we look for a store to buy a SIM card so we can call the apartment lady. I spot this hole in the wall store no bigger than the main floor bathroom in our house and try not to butcher the pronunciation of “Xiaoju Hutong” while pointing to the 33. The man seemed to understand and rattled off about 100 words of instructions on how to get there in Mandarin. My face must have looked panicked and I motioned him to follow me out to the street and I pointed in a vague direction with a questioning look on my face. He pointed down the grotty alley we had just come from but made a “veer to the right through that sketchy arch” hand motion (adjective mine). I smiled and said “shey shey” and headed in that direction with Barb and the boys in tow. We go through the arch and the alley veers right and we spot a number 26 so we keep going to find the 33. At one point we manage to find 32 and 34 but there is no 33! These three little girls sitting in the alleyway call out “Hi” and “Hello”. Obviously we are sticking out horrendously as tourists. I asked the girls where 33 was and they just laughed and shook their heads.
Well, my panic was starting to rise even more and I just prayed really quick for help. We turned around and this man could tell we were in distress and he approached me. Again I tried by best at pronouncing and he looked around and led us a short way back, about 40m. We had passed the place and not even known it. So we head in and this alley makes the alleyway look like the 407. We follow it to a dead end and I’m sure this is where the taxi driver has texted his mugging buddies to lie in wait for us. Then I hear a voice from behind call out, “Barbara?” – it was our contact.
The apartment is very small and cramped by North American standards and some things take a little getting used to – such as the toilet stall that doubles as a shower, never mind that the electronics are all open and susceptible to shorting due to the spray of water but hey, when in Rome…
We explored the inner city a little bit but stayed to major streets and I took pictures every 100-200m or so, not of people or interesting buildings but of street signs. If we got lost I had a “trail of bread crumbs” that we could follow back to the apartment and could show people if we got really lost because the signs were in Chinese characters that they could read.
I think the boys are overwhelmed and experiencing the double whammy of extreme culture shock and jet lag. We came back after walking a bit further find out about booking a Great Wall tour and off to bed they went. Not even any bargaining to stay up later!