[This is older than a thousand-year egg...]
I’ve found my hotel in Beijing through booking.com which meant it was safe and we shouldn’t have any problems. The single review warned about the receptionist’s lack of English skills. I picked the place because it was close to Clau’s accommodation and I assumed it’s across the street from him. It turned out our “hotels” were in the same enormous building. In fact, I’m grateful it wasn’t across the street, I’ve seen some pretty dodgy places around there.
He checked-in at the reception on the ground floor. Mine was on the 2nd floor, in a room. We arrived around noon, peeked through the open door and noticed something that resembled a reception desk. Reluctantly, I entered, followed by Clau. And now that I think of it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but I’m sure nothing could’ve prepared me at that time for what I found there. On the opposite side of the room, a Chinese family – mom, dad, kids and grandma - were having lunch. They stopped and stared as if we shouldn’t have been there. At that point I didn’t know whether I should run or laugh. For a second I imagined my dad amused by our story – “Si unde v-ati dus voi, mai copii?”. I could see their bedroom with a giant Buddha wallpaper above the bed. To the left, the kitchen and bathroom doors were open. Some laundry was drying on a rack. Our presence felt intrusive and offensive.
The man realised we’re customers and stood up hastily. I gave him my printed reservation and my ID. It soon became clear that he didn’t speak English AT ALL!! He didn’t understand any of check-in, reservation, passport, money, pay at check-out, receipt. Luckily, Clau knew all of these in Chinese. I wouldn’t have survived without him. Seriously, if you ever go to China, learn how to say “fapiao”. It means receipt and it will save your life. The guy insisted that we pay at check-in. We couldn’t argue much, he kept using his phone to translate his requests. The thought that they might terribly need the money crossed my mind so I gave up and paid for everything. Then he told us something about electricity. The phone app was useless, we had to call Shu, our Chinese friend, and ask him to translate it for us. Apparently, we had an allowance of 10 degrees of electricity for the whole stay. Up to now, I still don’t know what that means. We didn’t go over the amount, though, as we didn’t have to pay extra. In the following days any interaction with the hotel staff felt inappropriate. Most of the time we would find them in their pajamas, doing laundry or other chores in their unusual household.
My room was right above Clau’s, although, technically, we were in different hotels. Overall, it was functional and had all the basic fittings. I couldn’t get the TV to work, but the AC was, thankfully, in good condition. They never entered the room to clean or take the trash. In fact, I don’t think they ever cleaned the place, just changed the bedsheets when we left. It looked like a hotel, but it was nothing like it.
I was extremely tired and all I wanted was to sleep, but we were in Beijing and I had only 10 days and it was all exciting, so I couldn’t rest. We walked two subway stops to his workplace – my chance to get a closer look at Beijing streets. The heat, the pungent smell, the people rushing around, the dust, the old communist architecture contrasting the modern sky-scrapers – it all screamed at me and I was tired and found it difficult to cope. Clau was already accustomed with all of it, but I felt entirely overwhelmed. As a bonus, I somehow managed to get blisters on my feet on the way to Beijing. I’m not sure how that was possible, but I was already up for a rough start.
We had lunch in a deserted mall food court. His favourite restaurants were all closed. It simply wasn’t lunch time anymore. I ordered duck and the cook chopped it – bones included – in front of me. I ended up eating with my hands. My skills in handling chopsticks did not cover removing tiny pieces of bones from my food.
Then we walked around for a while, but I was so tired I couldn’t even stand. At every step I genuinely wondered whether I would be able to take the next one or not. We called the guys and decided to meet for dinner. Clau joined them in their office while I was resting on a couch in the lobby.
We had dinner at one of their favourite places – just me, Clau, George and our new friend Shu around a huge dish of spicy Kung Pao chicken. They also ordered some omelet and I felt relieved that I could find a simple dish to soothe my suffering. The chicken was amazingly good, but oh so very spicy. I was fishing around the dried chillies in vain. Not to mention that chopsticks are very difficult to use when you can barely lift your arms off the table.
Out of the blue Shu told me that I was pretty, that I looked even better than in the photos he had seen. I didn’t know how to respond to his sincere outburst. He was paying me a compliment and all I could think about was that I had just flown for 14 hours and I had a bad hair day, that my face was so sleepy it could’ve peeled off and left me and that, in spite all the showers, my skin was all sticky because of the heat and the dust on the streets. His convincing tone would’ve been mistaken as flirting in the Western world. I mumbled something about not being in the best shape and thanked him, then I quickly looked at Clau for an explanation. He confirmed – yes, Chinese people are that direct. They don’t hide behind words, they say what’s on their mind.
I remember vaguely the trip back to the hotel. We took the subway because I was exhausted. I slept soundly in spite of the trains going back and forth, the Amazon depot downstairs and the delivery guys beginning their shift at 6 am. Next day was fully booked and I was a wreck.