All Quiet in the Capital: Some time in Beijing
A backbreaking commute and banal shopping expedition in Beijing
Xi’an station was filled to the brim. Thousands upon thousands waiting to get out of there on a Sunday night. Turns out, they were all waiting for my train.
I could only get a hard-seat in 3rd class on my way to Beijing. It was $6, the cheapest - and only - ticket I could find. But even at that bargain price, it felt over-priced as soon as I stepped onto the platform.
It was about an 800 meter walk down towards my carriage, in tandem with hundreds of others. My carriage - the hardest of hard classes - was, it seems, entirely full. When I arrived, a line of about 30 people were waiting to board and already full carriage. Only some had real tickets, I’d soon be told. Many have counterfeit tickets, or simply no tickets, and immerse themselves in the crowd hoping to snag a precious piece of standing room.
I managed to force my way on. Soon, the doors closed, and the 12 hour journey started. It was no less squishy than a peak-hour subway ride. After several hours, I found my place. It was occupied, of course, but I politely extricated my imposter from the back-breaking seat. It’s much more comfortable standing on such a train. Knees interlocked with the passenger facing towards you, the tiny seats were like some sort of medieval torture device, straining my spine every time I dare rest my legs.
The train was 12 hours, leaving at 6pm and travelling through the dead of night. Most passengers stood. Many slept on the floor, as I permitted myself to do for one blissful hour. The remainder of my night was spent yearning for its end.
A Break in Beijing
Much of central Beijing was unlike my expectations.
A city of 25 million or so, I expected mayhem. Instead I often found tranquility. Rather than bedlam, Beijing was rather boring. I quite liked its leafy streets and logical grid layout, but was unenthused by the major draw cards: The Forbidden City? Underwhelming. Tiananmen Square and Mao’s Mausoleum? Nauseatingly flush with people and farcically cultish. I found the whole idolisation of its recent past a bit embarrassing, frankly, particularly since China has done a complete 180 from Maoism. The silliness of those poor guards standing upright for hours as nothing more than tourist props I found unappealing.
I usually get the most out of towns like these by just roaming on foot with no agenda. Sometimes, the most placid of pursuits can lead you towards somewhere interesting.
One afternoon, I hit the pavement in search of socks. I don't travel with a great deal of socks. I tend to wear through my few pairs and replace as I go. What better location to replenish my stock than in Beijing?
In a mall, I was accosted by an enthusiast. Perhaps 45, she (I regrettably forgot my notepad on my sock-shopping outing, and can’t recall her name) seemed stunned at the fact I was traveling solo, and introduced herself as an innocent simply curious about my endeavour. Sceptically, I got chatting and soon she was leading me towards something she just had to show me.
She was small and unintimidating. And I was spending my afternoon sock shopping. So I followed her curiously. We walked through Central Beijing for 15 minutes. I recounted my recent escapades in the Nujiang and lied that China was my favourite place yet. She led me to a basement stocked with artwork. Turns out, she was an art teacher, and sold her and her schools work to tourists who probably spend their days in town doing things other than shopping for undergarments.
I made it very clear I wasn’t to purchase a thing. “I’m traveling for too long”, began my usual refrain, “I simply can’t carry another thing more”.
But the artwork was genuinely beautiful: epic landscapes and ornate glassware. Were my net worth beyond that of a high-school shop assistant, I’d consider doing something I’ve never done before: buy a souvenir.
Exciting as my sock-shopping-souvenir-avoiding excursion was, my few days in Beijing were very quiet. Soon, I was headed to Jinshanling, among the more famous sections of the Great Wall. There, I’d be utterly surprised by my own reaction.