"So, are you ready to go to China?" Those words from my boss quickened my pulse.
Time was short and plans were quickly set in motion. I would be travelling with a client to an inland city, with a day layover in Bejing each way. Passports in hand, our hosts notified, and reservations made we boarded a plane headed over the pole, over Russia, to Bejing.
We arrived at one of the world's largest airport buildings, Terminal 3, an experience in itself...
Negotiating a taxi ride downtown was both my first chance to use the Mandarin that I had quickly learned - Learn in your Car CD's - and my first clue that it might be difficult to get around on our own. My English-language travel iteniary stumped the driver, but we managed the hour ride to our hotel - taking in views of the city on our way:
We were checked in by 5pm on that Saturday night, and I had a plan to entertain my client with some sightseeing. "How far to Tianamen Square", I asked the nice young lady at the desk. "Fifteen minute walk, that way", she said - pointing west. We headed west down the street, taking in the sights.
"Tianamen!", a smiling rickshaw driver shouted. Cool!
"Duo shao qian", I asked. (How much does it cost). "Si", he replied holding out 4 fingers. Hmm. 4 Yuan - about 65 cents American, I'm thinking. Cool! We'll take two.
Off we went, heading South! South? Yes, south. I know this is not right, but am not yet alarmed.
"I'm not sure this is right.", I said worriedly to my client. But we kept going, South. Into some worse areas than our hotel was in...
We rode for about 20 minutes, with right turns and left turns down narrower streets...
So, how does this lesson end. In a narrow alley. With a brick wall at the end. Us, the two cyclists, and a few of their friends. Uh oh!
Time to pay. I fished 4 single Yuan from my wallet (from the currency exchange at the airport) and held them out. Now he's angry. No, not "si". Now it's "sibai". 400 Yuan! Each!. Now we're in trouble. This may not end well.
Forunately, I had gotten 10 hundred Yuan bills at the currency exchange, so I could pay. But not yet. I have to figure a way to get out of here. So, as I'm arguing back loudly, I'm looking around. I see hope. I see a break at the end of the wall, maybe big enough for a man to squeeze through. "You're following me, now!" I tell my friend. I grab 4 hundred Yuan bills and hand them to my driver and head straight for the hole in the wall. I push my client through and quickly follow behind him. We're out on the street, with shouting on the other side of the wall. Down the street we run, North! - not slowing until we know that they are not following. We're safe. That could have ended badly - we could have disappeared an hour in country and no one would have known where we went. But, we're safe.
"That was our first lesson in China", I tell my client. "Don't go down any alley". Cost of the lesson? About $65. A bargain, I felt.
We had no choice at this point but to set off in the best general direction we could guess to find Tianamen Square. Was this it, we wondered?
Close, but not it. Still heading Northwest, maybe this guy knows?
No more rides! We found it on foot though, eventually.
These guys didn't look happy that I was taking their picture. No one told me that it was bad form (illegal?) to take pictures of the military in the square!
But, there were families having fun there too...
And standard historical photo ops...
Olympic pride was high, a month before the Olympics...
More troops, passing through the square at regular intervals...
We saw a lot in a short time. I bought some trinkets for the kids, and had vendors swarming all over me until I got firm. "Wa bu yao!" (I don't want..)
I was ready to call it a day...
and we headed back to the hotel for the night.
Or, so I thought. My client looked really ragged in the morning.
"Didn't you sleep well", I asked.
"Didn't sleep at all", he answered with a wry smile. "I went back out. I was up all night hanging out with some Swedes in a Russian mafia bar. Almost got beat up for taking a picture inside. They didn't like that."
That was a lot for Day One. Our first lessons in China.