Money, Lodging and Beer


This blog entry about the events of Friday, August 20, 2004 was originally posted on August 26, 2004.

DAY 307:  “Did you see The Wall?” Colombian Pilar from Barcelona asked me in the early afternoon as I entered the dining car — a new Chinese dining car that had been swapped for the Mongolian one during our overnight transformation to conform to the width of the Chinese rail system. 

“Huh?” I said in confusion.

“The Great Wall,” she said before saying some exclamation in Spanish.  “The conductor told me we stopped here for five minutes to see The Wall because a lot of passengers are foreigners.”  Four minutes had already passed since we had stopped.  The whole time I was just in my compartment reading; I thought the stop was just one of the many other stops of the day, in a small village for quick pick-ups and drop-offs.

Pilar and I were about to jump off the train onto the platform to catch the glimpse of The Wall I had missed; it was around the other side of the train.  The conductor told us to stop because the train would leave any second, so Pilar led me from car to car at a frantic pace.  Open open, slam slam.  Open open, slam slam, went the doors as we tried to find one of the cars that had its aisle windows on the left side facing The Wall.  The train started moving and we had not found one yet. 

Just before it was too late, the next car had its aisle on the left side and we rushed to an open window where a small group was already gathered with their cameras pointing out.  I did as they did and snapped a photo, but a mountain got in the way before the shutter released.  At least I had seen it with my naked eyes, I thought.  The Great Wall.  Wow.  I’m officially in China.

THE MAD DASH TO SEE THE WALL for a photo wasn’t so necessary because The Wall is so long — so long one might call it “great” — the train tracks went parallel with it for a considerable amount of time and there was no missing it — much to Toni’s happiness because he too had thought The Great Wall stop was just another stop.

The train continued southeast-bound through the green hills Inner Mongolia (the name of a province in China) and then into the Shanxi province towards Beijing, capital of China, once named Peking by colonists who pronounced “Beijing” wrong.  Xavi, Pilar, Toni, Henry, a Japanese girl whose name I never got and I killed most of the remaining travel time hanging out in the dining car, trying to learn Mandarin from Henry over beers and decent Chinese dishes prepared in the dining car kitchen.  With the Lonely Planet Mandarin phrasebook I got at a used bookstore in Ulan Baatar, Henry explained that the hardest part of speaking Chinese is the different inflections, because each one is actually a different word.  For example, “ma” can be said in different ways:  with a high tone, “mâ,” meaning mother; with no tone, “ma,” which denotes the sentence just spoken was a question; with a rising tone, “má,” meaning numb; with a falling tone, “mà,” meaning scold; and with a rising and falling tone (the way Scooby Doo says “Huh?”), “mã,” meaning horse. 

“Mâ ma má mà mã,” Henry told us, very fast.  It was hard to keep up, and that was just one syllable five times.  I didn’t dare try speaking a whole sentence yet.

Written Mandarin is a completely different beast all together, with many Chinese pictograms that people will tell you is logical when its broken down because they resemble trees and mountains and things like that — which I think is sort of a crock, because how am I supposed to intuitively know that a simple “X” represents a baby in some situations?  I mean, X’s usually mean ten or mark the spot or are drawn onto a simply face for eyes to show the guy is dead.  Also, like the inflections in voice, one simple difference in line stroke may alter the word entirely.  And don’t even get me started on how impossible it is to look at a Chinese letter and try and pronounce it — try it yourself the next time you see one.  Thankfully, the Chinese adopted Pinyin in 1958, a way to write Chinese words using the Roman alphabet, so that foreigners like us could get around a city.

Pilar, who was writing notes in her notepad translating Mandarin into Spanish, was only concerned with remembering two symbols:  the ones for man and woman, so she’d know which bathroom to go to.  She had been having a case of the runs from something she ate in Mongolia and had no time to be deciphering symbols in the case of an emergency.

AROUND THREE O’CLOCK the train pulled into Beijing’s main railway station.  The doors open and we walked into the main hallway.  We bid farewell to Henry and thanked him for his help — he was off to get a ticket to Hong Kong — while the Barcelonans, Toni and I went a long way up a ramp and out the main door.  Suddenly, after over thirty hours on a fairly peaceful train ride, we were thrown into the madness that was Beijing (picture above).  Touts came with signs for guesthouses.  Beggars singled out the Western looking folk for spare change.  And hundreds and hundreds of other Chinese people were just going about their business, picking up friends and relatives or dropping them off. 

“Aren’t you glad it’s not rush hour,” Toni said, smirking.  It was Saturday.

“Okay, money, lodging and beer,” I said.  We were all travelers and knew the drill when entering a new city. 

“That is practice for Life,” Toni said.  “First you need money, then you need a place to live, and then beer.”  Ah beer, the universal symbol at the end of a day for a job well done.

Money was no problem; I went to an ATM machine while Toni, the Colombian and the Barcelonan exchanged travelers checks at a nearby four-star hotel — one that used to be affiliated with backpacker organization Hostelling International.  Cheap accommodations were no longer available there, so we tried to find another place.  The whole ordeal was confusing since we didn’t know exactly where to go, how far things were — plus it seemed the approaches by rickshaw and taxi drivers wouldn’t end.  Luckily every guy on every level of Beijing society seemed to have a cell phone, and each prospective driver would call a hostel up for us to get directions or to find out availability — only to find out all the hostels in the immediate area were full.  Toni said we should probably move out to the Dongcheng District where all the clubs and bars were; rumor had it there were a bunch of hostels there.

Two taxis piggybacked on the fifteen-minute drive through central Beijing, a city that we were soon discovering was an ultra clean city with no litter on its modern thoroughfares.  We arrived near Workers Stadium, a sports stadium inside a park where many locals came to do Tai Chi exercises, jog or rollerblade.  About five blocks away was a Hostelling International hostel listed in the guidebook.  When we got to the lobby, four familiar faces from the train were there, also trying to get a room.  After they all checked in, there were no more rooms for us, but the receptionist told us about a new HI hostel affiliated with the fancy Sports Inn built inside the Workers Stadium’s ring — it wasn’t yet mentioned in the guidebooks, so it was worth a shot.

The Beijing Gongti Hostel at Workers Stadium was better than we could have imagined.  The rooms were actually rooms that were designed for the fancier part of the hotel — they even had keycard locks — just at about $8 (USD) a night for a four-way share.  Each room had its own air-conditioner and television, plus a view of the lake in the surrounding park.  Down the hall were the shower and bathroom facilities and even a washing machine that was free of charge to use.  Downstairs was another television that seemed to be perpetually showing Olympic ping-pong, and a decent internet connection with two extra Ethernet ports for laptops.

“I think this is the best place!” Toni raved, sharing my enthusiasm.  Toni and Xavi were assigned to the same room, Pilar to another (all girls) and me to another were two Americans, Paul and Sam, had arrived just the day before, but had already pretty much spread out their things all over their side of the room.

MONEY, CHECK.  Lodging, check.  Beer was next on the list, but in a place like Beijing, you can’t just have a beer on your first night, you have to have the local specialty known all around the world:  Peking Duck, known locally (and more politically correctly) as Beijing Duck, crisp fried slices of duck breast rolled into thin pancakes with green onions and eaten with a sweet plum sauce. 

Toni, Pilar, Xavi and I exited the Workers Stadium grounds and wandered for a place to eat, a real locals place that didn’t have pictures on the menu to point to or English translations.  We found a little divey place nearby and were handed a menu completely written in Chinese characters.  It might as well have been a US Treasury tax form pamphlet because no one was about to figure out what it all meant.  Using our phrasebooks, we tried to ask for duck, but they had none.  No chicken either.  We looked around the restaurant and simply pointed to things the people were having around us (in a borderline rude sort of way) and ended up sharing a bowl of noodles and a big platter of pork bones with some meat on them — nothing that really said “Welcome to Beijing.”  At least there was beer.

Still hungry, we wandered down another street and found a more upscale looking place with brighter lights.  Still a place frequented by locals, we asked if they had Beijing Duck and the man at the doors said they did.  It was a ploy in the end because after we were comfortably seated — conveniently by the front window to attract other foreigners into the restaurant — they said they didn’t have Beijing Duck.  We ended up ordering a couple of dishes — the menu was had English translations and pictures — which filled us up some more, but not completely.  Again, at least there was beer.

Pilar was just getting over a stomach virus that she got in Mongolia (most likely from trying the local drink of horse’s milk); by default Xavi went with her, leaving me and Toni to check out the scene for the rest of our first night in Beijing.  We asked the hostess at the restaurant for another with Beijing Duck and she put us in a cab and told the driver where to go.

About ten minutes later we were on the other side of the city center near Tiananmen Square, in another little divey place where a lone guy was sitting in the empty restaurant waiting for either a customer or closing time until we arrived.

“Beijing Duck?” Toni asked — it never hurt to try and ask in English first.  The guy understood and went to the kitchen to get it prepared.  Meanwhile, there was beer.

After finally having the quintessential “Welcome to Beijing” meal, we asked the only other guy in the restaurant for a cool bar.  With hand signals and limited verbal communication, he told us to go to a place called Mix, “the best disco in Beijing” he said, which was actually back near the Workers Stadium.

A taxi took us back to our home neighborhood, but we couldn’t find Mix.  We ended up finding one of the crowded side streets where a lot of trendy bars served foreigners and locals alike for a round of beer.  After asking person after person for directions to the Mix place, we started walking down the main street back towards the stadium.

“Do you know the club Mix?” Toni asked some random Chinese girl on the street. 

“Maggie’s?” she replied.  She knew some English after all.

“No, Mix.  M, I, X,” he said, writing the three letters in the air with his finger.

“Yes.  We go and take a taxi.  Only ten yuan.  Let’s go,” she said eagerly.  She had a friend with her that would also go.  Toni seemed to excited at the prospect of hooking up with the girls that night at the Mix club, and rushed into an acceptance.

“Are we going to Mix?” I asked.

“Maggie’s,” the girl replied.

“Maybe Maggie’s is the way Chinese say Mix,” Toni said.  He and the girl were already flagging down a taxi.  Skeptically I went in the vehicle with my own female escort.  I had a feeling they were being a bit over-friendly for a reason.

“Where are you from?” one girl asked me on the taxi ride.

“USA,” I said sort of fast, mumbling.  She heard another country for some reason, “India,” and right after that (as fucked up as it sounds), she simply ignored me; all eyes went on the guy pretty fly for a white guy, who probably had a bit of local cash on him.

The bar we arrived at was definitely not “Mix,” but “Maggie’s,” as written in big neon letters above the bar.  Inside were the sounds of American dance and hip-hop — and a bunch of old middle-aged men dancing with young Chinese women.  Long story short, the girls had scammed us out of cab fare to get to the bar they both “worked” at.  When Toni didn’t have any small bills of the local yuan currency, he wanted to change money at the bar — but they gave him a bad rate and so he remained at Maggie’s without usable cash. 

When the girls found out that Toni wasn’t exactly a big spender — particularly on them and their preference for pricey cognacs — they excused themselves, even admitting, “Excuse me, I am working here.”  Around us, other working girls were looking for possible clients for the night, mostly desperate middle-aged men with time and money.  We hung out on the dance floor and the sofa in the back for a while, exhausted but still happy that we had arrived in Beijing, the final destination for both of us after long days on Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian trains since Moscow — despite having been led on by a couple of working girls on our very first night.  We had money, we had lodging and so, for one more time that night, we cracked open another round of beers in celebration.

Next entry: Forbidden No More

Previous entry: Chopsticks and Train Tracks

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Comments for “Money, Lodging and Beer”

  • Mongolia, now China… You’re making me want to change my trip itinerary!

    Posted by Dan  on  08/25  at  07:03 PM

  • Great Wall of China does have a much better ring than Long Wall of China….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:29 PM

  • HEY ALL… more to come… hopefully two more before I leave Beijing tomorrow evening for Xi’an…  There is a whole entry dedicated to the Great Wall coming soon…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:33 PM

  • Sorry guys - NO MOney , No HOney, No FUnny ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  07:40 PM

  • After all your times of being scammed, I’m glad your wariness paid off…
    I can’t believe they bought that you were from India… strange. Works for you, though!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  08:34 PM

  • oh, it is all so exciting… I can’t wait to get to China

    Posted by Liz  on  08/25  at  09:32 PM



    I feel like i just went back in the past.

    Everyone raise your signs: Erik Was Here!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  11:30 PM

  • LP - your posting of that long ass URL totally messed up the framing!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  02:04 AM

  • shoot man, that picture of the wall rocks
    by the way actually Peking is Beijing in Cantonese, but as colonists first had contacts with the Cantonese the name stuck. For example Hong Kong’s official (Mandarin) name is Xianggong

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  04:58 AM

  • Cool fact F. Levente!

    You really lucked on the accoms Erik! That place sounds awsome!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:14 AM

  • just to let you know, the word for duck is pronounced ya. with the tone on the a rising up and drawn out a bit. and i hope you got to go to the great wall, and walked a couple of miles on it. at one point, you should stop, face mongolia, and yell out “you dam mangowian, you break down my shitty wall” like that take out dude from south park. =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  07:02 AM

  • LOVEPENNY:  Hey, I had to split up your link; if messed up my table formatting…

    MARKYT:  Next time you see it, go ahead and split it as I did, with the note in brackets…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  09:07 AM

  • Cool pic’s Erik you could be from anywhere!!!  You sure do blend in well and it has been to your advantage!  Can’t wait to see more pic’s of the WALL up close.. Those written characters I call “broken chairs”... all squiggly broken legs!  That’s how they looked to me when I was in Japan.  Stay Safe!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/26  at  06:49 PM

  • Good one ALICE! I love the guy from Shitty Wok. “you damn mongowian!”

    ERIK: I know exactly how you felt trying to catch that first real glipse of the Wall. I was the same when I went to Athens for the first time—had to see the Acropolis IMMEDIATELY! That rush, “Holy crap, that’s really IT!” is a critical symptom of catching the Travel Bug. Excellent pic!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/30  at  02:41 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Forbidden No More

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Chopsticks and Train Tracks


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