Towards the end of my long train ride, a middle aged man boarded the train and sat down next to me. He was thin, and of about an average height. Wearing a polo shirt, Adidas soccer shorts, black socks, and dress shoes, he was instantly recognizable as some sort of business man. I said hi and started chatting with him a bit.
He was immediately impressed with my Chinese and started telling me how I sounded “really standard”. I on the other hand couldn’t understand him that well. It seemed like every other syllable he said had an “R” in it. He also used a lot of weird phrases I’d never heard before. I started to wonder, “Could this be a real, live Beijinger sitting next to me?”
Not quite, as it turned out. But he was from nearby, and he’d been living and working in Beijing for years. I told him where I was going, and he told me how to get within walking distance of the place via the subway. Since we were both getting off at the same train stop, and both going to the subway, he lead me from the train station to the subway station, and even swiped me in with his card! Talk about hospitality! Some guy I’d just chatted with for an hour or so, was suddenly paying for me, the “rich foreigner” to ride the subway. I thanked him profusely as we took the subway in separate directions.
I got off at the 前門 stop, took the stairs out of the subway and started looking around, trying to find my bearings. Within seconds, a rickshaw driver showed up screeching that most accursed of words, “Hello! Hello!” at me. He asked where I was going and after I told him he immediately tried to rip me off. He wanted 20RMB to take me somewhere so close that a cab could get me there for the minimum fare of 10RMB. Seeing as a cab is way faster and more comfortable than some rickety three wheeled rickshaw, I told the guy there was no way I’d pay him that much. “15!”, he offered. I told him I wouldn’t go over 5, and he got all huffy and offended, so I just walked off.
As I asked people on the street how to get to 大柵欄, the street with all the hostels, more and more rickshaw drivers came and tried to rip me off. Some even followed me and tried to convince me that my destination was so far that I “couldn’t make it” on foot. I later learned from a Korean buddy, that it only costs 4RMB for him to take a rickshaw from 前門 to 大柵欄. They just try to get five times that out of white people. Bastards.
When I finally got to 大柵欄 street, I was sweaty, exhausted, and in a pretty foul mood. As I saw the street, though, my spirits took a turn for the better. Even late at night, shops were open, the streets were full of everyone from young children to shirtless old men wandering around with lamb-meat kabobs purchased nearby, and all kinds of food was available. It was like a Taiwanese night market, except somehow, it seemed even more Chinese. The streets were absent of scooters, people were riding bicycles around, women were carrying bags of fruit, and the mood was festive. Other than the occasional obnoxious hello from every third rickshaw driver and his idiot cousin, the place was bliss.
Being so close to Tian An Men, there were also hostels everywhere; a couple had huge English signs outside, while others were only labelled in Chinese. Since I’d come to China to see Chinese stuff, I opted for the latter. Unfortunately, none of them would give me a room. Most said they didn’t have any rooms left. When I asked what the prices were, just so that I’d know for the next day when rooms opened up, they were reluctant to tell me. Something strange was definitely going on. Finally, at one of the hostels that said they were full, someone came in behind me, asked for a room, and was given one! At that I turned to the guy at the desk and asked him why he, and everyone else on the street had been lying to me. It turns out, they don’t rent to “foreigners”, i.e., westerners. I tried a “money is money, just let me stay” argument, but to no avail. So much for my high spirits. Overt prejudice in something like housing sure doesn’t give one a very good first impression of Beijing.
With no other options, I finally checked in to one of the hostels marketed directly towards foreigners, knowingly paying more than three times what I’d have had to if I were Chinese.