When I think of Beijing, I think of walls. I think of the Great Wall, that fortress meandering over a panoply of mountains surrounding Beijing, built to keep foreign invaders out of China.
Today, foreigners can be found all over Beijing, a city that in 2008 warmly welcomed them to the Olympic Games. But sometimes, no matter how open things seem to be, the walls still remain.
I was hitting a wall of my own in Beijing when I couldn’t get in touch with my Chinese boyfriend, John. It was past nine on the evening of September 28, and he had promised to arrive in Beijing on the morning of September 29. But he hadn’t called to say he would definitely come, or that he had bought a train ticket — and his cell phone had lost power, so I couldn’t call or send a text message. I was in my hotel room, without the distractions of the day — a walk around Tian’anmen Square, a visit to a replica of the home from a Dream of Red Mansions — and all I could think of was this vacation couldn’t move forward without John.
A bath, I thought. Just take a bath. So, as I slipped into the tub — my last refuge from a mental breakdown — and my phone rang. It wasn’t John’s number, but I picked it up.
And, sure enough, it was John. “I just got on the train — I’ll be arriving at 7:45am in the Beijing station.”
Just like that, his words broke through the barriers in my mind. He was coming. Our National Day vacation would happen. We would be together again.
Yet, all of my elation never prepared me for the walls that awaited us, after John arrived. Because, when you’re young, in love, and traveling independently — on a budget — in China, something’s bound to catch you, sometime.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any tickets to Hangzhou.”
Hours after John emerged from the Beijing train station, our first order of business was getting tickets home to Hangzhou. There was no such thing as a round-trip train ticket in China — you had to buy one way, and hope to get the return one after you arrived. Yet, our hope was getting blocked by the National Day travel rush, making tickets to Hangzhou impossible, as this ticket agent reminded us.
“What about to Shanghai?” I suggested. Shanghai was only two hours from Hangzhou, and we’d be sure to find tickets to Hangzhou — by bus or train — once we arrived.
The ticket agent typed in the characters, and scanned the screen of his computer. “We’ve got two soft sleeper tickets to Shanghai, arriving October 4.”
The pricier soft sleepers weren’t our first choice — but an expensive ticket was better than no ticket at all. So John and I just shrugged our shoulders, and looked at the agent. “We’ll take it.”
The travel rush not only diverted us to another city — it diverted our focus as we went around Beijing, visiting major sites. Xiangshan had too many tourists, and none of the red maple leaves it was famous for. Tian’anmen Square was a sea of people that engulfed John and I on our way to the Forbidden City — with relief only after we bought tickets and entered the former palace.
But then we encountered the greatest wall of all. The Great Wall.
I had seen Badaling before, and I wanted something different — Simatai. But it’s one thing to want a destination, and another to get there.
We thought we would get there on the bus from Dongzhimen, the one the ticket collector suggested. It wasn’t a direct bus, but we were told we’d make it to Simatai — and we didn’t have another choice. The bus poked along the highway, barely faster than the crows flying next to it, in an effort to lap up extra business on the way from people on the roadside. After an hour or so, the bus pulled into what we thought was just another detour to pick up business — the city of Miyun. Except, the bus stopped, and we had to get out. Outside the bus doors was a gang of drivers operating illegal taxis, known as heiche (é»‘è½¦, literally “black cars”), swaggering towards the bus to cheat their next customers. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, and definitely not in Simatai.
When I exited the bus, I felt as if the driver had thrown us underneath, because the heiche drivers salivated when they saw my foreign face, and closed in. I suddenly switched into panic mode, grabbing John’s hand and speedwalking as fast as I could away from them. John thought I’d lost it. “What are you doing? Slow down, nothing’s going to happen.”
Did John and I see the same thing? “We’re lost, and being followed by heiche.” I looked over my shoulder to see one of the cars now trailing us down the road.
“Calm down,” said John. “You don’t need to panic.”
I turned nervously towards him. “What about the heiche?”
“Just keep walking, they’ll go away.”
After we turned a corner, the heiche stopped following us. But the more we looked, the more we realized something — there were no official taxis, only heiche. We’d have to take one, even if we wanted to go to the Miyun bus station.
“There’s no Miyun bus station,” the heiche driver said after he’d picked us up near a roundabout. “But I can take you to Simatai — 60 RMB there, 60 back.”
It was so incredulous. How could a town not have a bus station? But as I wondered just how many heiche we’d have to go through before getting to the bus station, I gave up. “Okay.”
He did okay in getting us to Simatai. He waited until we climbed and crept all over the precipitous Simatai Great Wall, until John had truly become a haohan (a brave man — for it is said, if you haven’t visited the Great Wall, you haven’t become a brave man yet). And he took us — just the two of us — on the road back to Beijing. I had nestled into John’s arms to take a nap, not realizing we weren’t done with the walls yet.
“I was thinking, you might want to take one of the Miyun buses back to Beijing,” the driver suggested. “I can help you flag one down.”
It wasn’t reasonable. But we weren’t in a reasonable situation — one where the line between passenger and hostage, official and illegal taxi suddenly disappears. The driver was a hefty, strapping Northeasterner, more than twice the size my gentle Chinese boyfriend, John. And the more we pressed him to take us to Beijing, the more menacing he appeared to me.
“Sure, we’ll take the bus,” said John.
A few minutes later, he located a minibus and stopped it for us. Just as I opened my wallet to give him 30 RMB, he stopped me. “It’s 50 RMB.” He only took us halfway back to Beijing, but expected more than half of his share — and he wasn’t going to let us get around this wall, unless we paid in full.
We entered the minibus — minus 50 RMB and our dignity — and thought we were now headed for Beijing, finally.
Or were we?
“Isn’t this Miyun?” I asked John as the driver pulled into a city once again.
It was. And he wasn’t just entering Miyun — he circled it, like a bird of prey looking to descend on more passengers. He must have scoured the city for nearly an hour, while John and I were wondering if or when we’d ever return to Beijing.
The bus did, eventually, return to the major road to Beijing. But as we approached Beijing, it was approaching 5pm — and we approached a traffic jam. The bus plodded and stopped, plodded and stopped, all the way into the city of Beijing.
Sometime around 6pm, the bus pulled into Dongzhimen bus station, and opened its doors. There was nothing more stopping us, or getting in the way — we were back in Beijing.
But soon, we would be back in Shanghai, facing yet another wall — the wall of silence between John and I.
What walls have you encountered in life, travel or love in China (or elsewhere)?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.