Magical China: First Impressions


Cool air. Narrow, winding hutongs. Illuminated lanterns in reds and oranges, swaying suspended in the space above the streets. Frosty windows, thick blankets. Weeping willows descending on cobblestone alleyways. Kaleidoscope reflections in still black waters surrounding the ancient Forbidden City. Warm scarves. Night markets and steam, rising from hot pots of ethnic goodies and warm spiced drinks. Live scorpions and snakes, twisting around shish-kabobs and ready to eat. Roasted hot chestnuts. Wide, open, clean boulevards. Bright lights like Times Square.

Magic. The place felt like magic.

From the hot, sticky humidity of Southeast Asia to the crisp, brisk air of autumn in China, we changed seasons in a day. We welcomed the new temperature and our newfound ability to breathe, but we shocked our bodies something serious. Shivering all the time, our backpacks, full of clothes from another world, did us little good in our new destination. We were just a little bit (read: completely and totally, without a doubt, entirely) frozen. So we did what any normal rational people would do, we wore absolutely everything we had in our bags, all at once. I’m talking leggings under pants under dresses under shirts under scarves – the whole shebang. And we looked exactly as amazing as it sounds. Why else would the random Chinese men we passed on the street call out to us “I love you!”? ;)

“Expect to waste some time but also to meet some bonafide residents of the city who will embarrass you with their generosity, taking you by the arm and leading you to the door of your destination.”-Insider Guide to Beijing 2010.

Ok, so after arriving at the Beijing airport, Joanne and I took our frozen butts and flip-flopped feet (read: idiots) into a bus that we weren’t certain at all went anywhere near our hostel (Peking International Youth Hostel). The bus dropped us off somewhere that we hoped was Beijing, more specifically near to the Forbidden City, which is where our hostel was. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning. We get off the bus and we look around for some sign of where we are.


We look harder. Nothing.

So we pick a direction and start walking. After we’d moved not even, oh, ten meters, a small Chinese woman, probably in her early 40’s, asks in passing “Can I help you?”.

Weird, I guess our flip-flops were a dead-giveaway. Heck yes she can help us! We show her the name and “supposed address” of where we’re trying to get to. She nods, but it’s immediately apparent the only words of English she can speak are: Can, I, help, and you. Nevertheless, she stops walking wherever it was she was walking to, waves a cab down, and asks if the driver can take us to our destination. No, she shakes her head. He can’t. She waves another down. No, he can’t, either. Some body language about something, and she shakes her head again. This goes on 5 more times until she gives us some more body language, a wide smile, and gestures that we follow her instead.

She walks us to the nearest subway station, where we thank her profusely (read: bow our heads and smile like idiots). Expecting her to start heading back to wherever it was she was heading before she met us, we were surprised when she gestured for us to follow her down INTO the subway station. Smiling more, nodding at whatever it is that she’s saying to us in Chinese like we understand (read: like idiots), we get to the part where we have to buy tickets. No idea where we’re going, let alone what direction, we’re all sorts of grateful when she offers to help. She even buys the tickets for us.

Here we resume thanking her in Chinese (read: bowing heads and smiling like idiots again). She smiles back, but she doesn’t leave. She uses her own subway card, and follows us through the turnstiles.

Assuming wherever she was headed before she met us is also somewhere accessible by subway, we let her lead us to the tracks. When the train comes, we turn and face, bowing and nodding and smiling from ear-to-ear. We sort of know where we’re going now, and this woman has been amazing.

We step on the train. Unable to move because it’s rush-hour and we don’t really want to knock someone over with our backpacks just yet, we have our backs to the doors as they close. At the next stop, some people get off the train and Smiley Chinese Lady’s head appears, just like that, right in front of us. She must be going in the same direction as us. We laugh at the absurdity of it all, and ride the train in smiley silence until it’s time for us to get off.


As we’re walking off the train, we do our ridiculous smiling and bowing our heads thing again (we’re really good at it now). She follows us off the train.

And not only does she follow us off the train, she walks us the full 20 minutes right to the doorstep of our hostel.

Right there! As if the Insider Guide to Beijing was written about this lady, and our experience alone. She follows us in to make sure she’s taken us to the right place.

She took an hour and a half out of her morning to make sure a couple random strangers made it safely to their beds.

What a wonderful, helpful, smiley woman. No wonder we liked China immediately.

Bow head, smile big, THANK YOU.