When living in student accommodation there was a underground station nearby. More lines are being built to serve wider areas of Beijing, but at this time the nearest tube to my new home is quite a journey. I want to visit central Beijing. My friend works on the way so today we both climbed into a taxi to her workplace.
My friend explained that 95% of buses along this road go to the underground station, and you pay 1yuan (less than 10p) to the conductor. She drew a map showing that they will turn left then continue on to Xizhimen (said shijimern) station. The buses here clatter past and stop for such a brief moment that I was too hesitant to catch the first ones. I made a run for the next bus that wasn’t already crammed, and stood amidst the Chinese faces. I held on and tried not to show myself up. The bus turned left. Now I still couldn’t see a conductor. I tried to watch people to see how they paid – but no one moved. I noticed that some people flashed a card as they left. I was faintly aware of someone shouting in the background. It is all background noise to me. And then the bus turned right…
Is this the way? What did she say, was it definitely left then straight? Maybe it was right – did we really turn left? Maybe one was a bend in the road…No, both were clear right-angle turns at traffic lights. Now we’ve sailed through a second junction. Trust me to get the 5% that goes the wrong way! What should I do? I don’t have a map – I only know the road that was drawn for me – which is half a mile back that way! I’ll have to get off…Someone is really screaming. As I walk down the road I am completely ashamed to realise I didn’t pay for that journey.
All the way back at the main road, I decide that I don’t want another experience like that! I walk the rest of the way. Underground tickets are a standard price for any journey – and consist of a small, flimsy piece of paper that you hand to the attendant before each journey. Of course, the exception to this I discovered the first time I used the underground: Tickets on the new line are more expensive and you feed them into a machine on exit.
Wanfujing is a main shopping street in central Beijing, and you see a lot of tourists here. I successfully change travellers cheques, buy a vital Beijing map and browse the shops. Western fast food is available here in abundance. I wander down a side street and buy lunch at a Chinese store. They don’t really do sandwiches or crisps in China. Instead you experience a completely new and delicious delicacy.
As I idly meander down the street a 30-40 year old Chinese lady approaches and explains she is practising her English. She keeps pace with me and says she is an English teacher, at which point she introduces her students that are hovering behind us. I have little else to do than make conversation with them, so agree to see their English School. They take me to a room full of art. After some more chatting, including giving me my name in Chinese characters, they showed me more art. “Do you like this picture?” – predictably they would later talk prices. I like Chinese art. I haggled down the price of my favourite piece to half the first offer. I later found out they probably still made a good profit from me. I remember the surprised look on the faces of the students as I got out the cash. With all that effort they put in, I am pleased for them. I guess £4 is quite a lot here.
By this time I am late to get back to meet my friend. I return to the underground station, but as I did not come by bus I don’t know where the bus stop is! When you don’t know the area, all signs are in Chinese and you can’t communicate with anyone these things get quite complicated! In the end I find it. It was dark by this time so the bus was emptier. I showed the conductor the Chinese name for my destination and paid my fare. As I was wondering if my stop was next, the conductor drew my attention and gave the nod of confirmation I needed. Travelling by bus really isn’t that bad.