It was in Taiwan I worked out why I find modern cities cold and uninspiring. It's the concrete. In the sun it gains no heat. In the sunset it gains no colour. Beijing is brick, small, flat grey bricks. Mostly in the old section, but bricks nonetheless. I suspect this is one of the reasons while I like Beijing. I know many people don't and it's easy to see why. It's over-crowded and it's heavily polluted.
When I visited Beijing last it was the month before winter and now, it's the month after. This cusp of winter gives the city a crisp calmness. The place is stark, defined. The haze that sits over Beijing also gives it its own charm. The sunsets last much longer than a usual one because the sky goes a soft yellow-orange colour much earlier, prolonged by the haze. The tint from the sunset is reflected on buildings and it makes it feel a little less cold, a soft glow on the pale skin of Beijing.
For the second time I found myself in Beijing with a week to spare. This time I had intended to make trips out of Beijing to surrounding areas. I wasn't able to because I had foolishly given my passport to the Mongolians within which they would affix a visa. Normally a copy of a passport is sufficient for train travel but not this time or, at least, not for me.
In Vietnam I took a train from Hué to Ha Noi. On the platform I started talking to a man called Oscar. He is a Mexican studying in Beijing. Once we boarded I found that I had entire berth of six beds to myself. On a walk to find the food carriage I passed Oscar, disheveled trying to sleep in a seat. I convinced him to make use of the spare beds. He'd book through an agency so his seat ticket had cost more than my bed ticket. We chatted until late and then parted company in the early hours of a Ha Noi morning.
So I spent all of my time in Beijing with Oscar. We frequenting cafés, explored the local restaurant scene and shopped for clothing that may help me resist the relentless, unforgiving cold that would embrace me in Mongolia.
Nanning has that fetid smell of burning that signals one’s entrance into China. In the morning is not an inspiring sight. I decide a quick trip to the South Lake is in order. It’s one of the first things listed to see and do here. It’s entirely surrounded by concrete and construction.
This is the town really. It’s grey concrete constructed at a breakneck pace. The rest of the city has this thin layer of concrete dust over it. And the sky is concrete grey. It all blends together and inspires nothing.
My Souvenir: a face masks for wearing on public transport
I'm in Nanning to take the train to Beijing. I am trying to do most of this trip overland but couldn't be bothered getting two visas for the China leg. So after Taiwan, I flew in the first town from the Vietnam border. The city may be cold but it's people are not. Let me tell you how I ended up at my hostel.
I debarked the plane and slid through immigration. Then it was a bus into the city and a short walk to the train station to get my ticket for tomorrow. I went up to the woman selling tickets and said: “Train Station?” and she looked at me blankly. I then said fire-car-station? And she said yes. 火车站 is Chinese for train station. The first symbol is fire, the second is car. So a fire-car is a train. It’s a brilliant language at times.
I then read that I should take bus 33 to my hostel. I took that but I was at the wrong stop and it went to the outskirts of Nanning and then stopped. The roads: broken concrete and the bus: basically a shopping trolley full of cymbals. The racket: tiring.
We’d pull under a highway overpass and all the other passengers had scattered like creatures of the night disturbed from their business. I showed the bus driver the hand written characters of where I wanted to go and he said looked at it hard. My handwritten Chinese is pretty shabby. Not at all a surprise because my hand written English is borderline disgraceful. After his stare had deciphered the meaning he sighed and said: Ok. And we started driving again. Another hour of the crashing cymbal cacophony and the bus pulled up at that stop I had scrawled. It is now 11pm and my plane had landed but three hours ago.
I see a few police officers standing around so I walked over to them. I showed them my scrawl and asked where this address was and they pointed down a street. I walked down it for a while before deciding it was definitely not here. Not on this street, not in this direction. I had stopped near a restaurant. I walked over and in and asked a young man who was working there to help me. Our conversation used almost my entire Chinese vocabulary. I would need to sleep to regain those words for tomorrow.
He connected me to the internet. The free WIFI in China tends to require a mobile phone number that a verification code is sent to. I eventually found the address online. The problem was the confirmation email said it was 97-3 National Road. But it's really Minzu avenue. Minzu means National in Chinese but no map I had access to had 'National' road on it.
I thank him profusely and walk out. He walked to. He just walks out of his restaurant and sees me down the street for a few hundred metres and around the corner until we find the hostel. Then he explains to them where I was and they translate some stuff into English for him. He wants to give me a big welcome to China. His name is Yang and I have his business card now. He's a young lad probably early twenties. What a beautiful man.