You are a Chinese businessman en route to McDonalds on your lunch break, contentedly entertaining the idea of a Quarter Pounder and a Coke. You proceed easily along the crowded sidewalks, Chinese pedestrians yielding to you, motorscooters puttering beside you in the road, when suddenly you find an obstacle in your path: three foreigners (sorry, aliens) stand beside a half dozen bags on a street corner. Judging by their gesticulations and crazed facial expressions, it appears that they are in the middle of a heated argument or a wildly intense game of charades. But no, you think, charades requires silence, and these women are barking at each other in an indecipherable cacophony of sounds you can’t place. You feel perturbed by the incident and no longer crave a Quarter Pounder.
I jest, but at that moment, as the three of us stood quarreling on the sidewalk, all I wanted was to sulk somewhere and cry (over a Quarter Pounder).
“I don’t get why we have to go all the way to the other side of town for this hostel! No one will take us there! This is ridiculous!”
“We have to take the subway!”
“I’m not taking the subway! I have too many bags!”
“Then you look for a hostel! I’m done!”
“No matter what we do, you’ll never be happy!”
“Oh I see. Now you two are the reasonable ones and I’m just poor, foolish…”
“I’m going to the bar.”
We’d been standing on the corner for a miserable thirty minutes that felt more like a month. I wasn’t hungry; I wanted to be in a hostel, and a clean one at that, but a beer and some greasy bar food sounded sufficient enough. As we silently ordered pizza, I wondered how it was that we found ourselves sitting with all of our belongings, seething at a roadside bar next to the hostel. In the end, it boiled down to useless maps, my inability to find Jingshan Park, and, most importantly, the word ‘no.’
Unlike English, Mandarin has no real word for ‘no.’ This is not to suggest that in Mandarin, all things are possible and there are no situations that compel a speaker to decline or negate an invitation. On the contrary, the Chinese have many ways of saying ‘no,’ probably because there are myriad opportunities daily to disappoint hapless alien tourists in very different and specific ways.
The word ‘mayo,’ for example, means ‘not have,’ as in, “Mayo pancakes. Garlic broccoli for breakfast instead?” (Just kidding. The people at that restaurant spoke no English at all, and asking for the bill involved me waving money in the air and pointing at our empty plates.)
Our first encounter with ‘mayo’ was at a delicious little restaurant specializing in Peking duck with traditional plum sauce. Judson and Valiha had excitedly taken us there after our trek up the Great Wall, and just as we’d sat back to await the duck order, the waitress returned, smiling: “Mayo duck.”
If one would like to negate something, the word ‘bu’ is placed before the word to be negated, such as bula, probably meaning ‘no spicy.’ ‘Bu’ would have been helpful to know beforehand, as it turned out to be the most frequently encountered word on the trip.
Walking for an hour around the drum tower, searching for a train ticket office that the hostel map promised us would be on the very next corner: “No more. No more office.”
Attempting to buy a ticket on the high speed train to Shanghai for the following day: “No tickets.”
Trying to book an extra night at the hostel in Beijing since our trip to Shanghai was delayed: “No rooms.”
Spending a half an hour flagging down multiple cabs, begging them to take us to our new hostel on the other side of town: “No.”
This constant frustration plagued our first few days in Beijing and wore whatever little patience we had down to a thread. To be fair, my patience had been dwindling since the day before, and was reduced exponentially each time we returned to the hostel and I tried unsuccessfully to force myself into the shower. What was even more aggravating was the fact that I couldn’t rightfully complain; very little planning had gone into this trip.
I’d come to China with no real agenda apart from the one that Judson had supplied me with and which had included one place in particular that caught my eye: Jingshan Park. To emphasize, prior to the trip, I knew nothing about this park. But Judson’s e-mail had mentioned that Jingshan provided unparalleled views of Beijing, of the hutongs, of the Forbidden City – all within tangles of trees, shrubbery, and vibrant pagodas.
Once I set my mind on something, it’s difficult to change it, and oftentimes it becomes a bit of an obsession. In this way, I feel bad for people who choose to travel with me. (Judson was quick to point out that my desire to drink moonshine on a tree stump in Alabama fit this description.)
Loraine, Chantelle, and I passed a lovely day at the Summer Palace, a locale deserving of a full day’s time to explore it in its entirety. Afterwards, we headed to Tiananmen Square via subway.
“Look!” I pointed to the map. “That Jingshan Park is right around here.”
“What are you supposed to do there?” Loraine asked me.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Judson said you can climb a hill in the park and see the city.”
We wandered through Tiananmen and behind it, to where the map claimed Jingshan Park might be. Instead, we found ourselves in a crowded area thronged with hawkers and vendors selling cheap souvenirs. (We later discovered that this was the Forbidden City.)
“This doesn’t look like the park,” Chantelle observed.
“No,” I replied, frowning. “I have no idea where we are.”
We continued walking forward, passing through beautiful stone gates, pushing against the flow of pedestrian traffic until we reached an open square and turned right. There, outside the square, was a park.
“This isn’t the park,” I said uncertainly.
“It looks like a park,” Loraine replied.
“Yes, but it’s not…I don’t think it’s the park.”
“What difference does it make?”
“The other park has a hill,” I pressed. “You can see the whole city.”
Shrugging, Loraine pushed up to the ticket booth and handed Chantelle and I some tickets bearing photos of tulips and a small blurb advertising a tulip garden.
“Yeah…I don’t think this is it,” I remarked. “This is Xinghan Park. We want Jingshan.”
“Are you sure it’s not a variation of the spelling?”
“I don’t know.”
We paused a moment, decided to give the tulips a miss, and headed back to the rusty hostel. I should have been thrilled about our day, and I was; we’d strolled through Beijing, absorbed centuries of culture, history, and architecture, and had successfully avoided stingy bathrooms. I should’ve let it go, but the fact that we’d been so close to the park only increased my determination to find it.
The following day was spent hiking to and along the Great Wall of China, quite possibly the highlight of my entire trip. Puzzlingly, I’ve mentioned this to multiple people, and all of them seem confused:
“What was the best part?” they ask excitedly.
“Oh, we did a cool hike to the Great Wall! It was awesome.”
“…really? That was the best part?”
This always makes me a little uncomfortable, like they wanted to hear something different, so I often feel compelled to add something else, like, “Well, that, and…we ate a lot of dumplings?”
I suppose some people don’t see the excitement in climbing – not shuffling along in a pack of tourists – something that’s basically a world wonder, but hey, to each his own. The Great Wall hike and the day itself restored my faith in China. Perhaps this trip could be wonderful after all.
After arriving back in Beijing that afternoon, we hit the roadblock that was the part of the trip where there were no tickets to Shanghai for the following day and there was no duck at the Peking Duck restaurant. A good night’s sleep was impossible at the hostel, so we awoke the next morning as impatient and frustrated as we’d been the night before. As it turned out, the morning and early afternoon would only aggravate our sour moods.
It wasn’t until one in the afternoon that we found ourselves ready to move on to the new hostel, train tickets in hand. Around two, after passing countless minutes being rejected by cab drivers, we descended into the altercation that landed us in the nearby pizza restaurant. It wasn’t until we’d nearly finished our beers that Loraine quietly agreed to take the subway to the new hostel.
Exhausted, we piled our bags into the subway, still wary of what the new hostel would be like.
“What if it’s just as disgusting as the old hostel?” Chantelle wondered.
“The old hostel didn’t have any rooms for tonight. I didn’t want to ask…but I did.”
“This is in a part of town that no one wants to go to. I don’t know why we’re going here.”
We stewed silently on the subway as a small Chinese boy, whose pants had holes in both the front and the back to expedite the excretory process, rolled around the plastic seat and licked his fingers. Loraine had adopted a stern face that frightened me, Chantelle seemed tired, and I spent every minute internally panicking about the new hostel: would it be terrible? Would they even have our room ready? (I’d called twice to ensure that they hadn’t given it away in spite of our tardiness.)
The tension persisted; no one paused to remark when we passed a woman holding her urinating baby over a trashcan in the street. Words were sparse and nary a glance was exchanged.
When we reached Peking Yard Hostel, I held my breath and pushed in the door.
We were greeted immediately by the fragrant smell of jasmine and a tinkling fountain filled with darting little fish. Five minutes of standing at the desk across from a cheery receptionist melted the last of the tension away, and we retreated to the rooftop to enjoy beers in their garden and exhale.
“This is great!” Loraine cried. “Absolutely beautiful.”
“So much better than the last hostel,” Chantelle agreed.
I skimmed the address card for the hostel as they talked, glancing at a map posted on the back. That’s when I saw it.
“Hey…that park is near here. Look!”
“Are you still on about that park? Why do you want to see it so bad? Just because Judson recommended it?”
“Um…” I thought for a moment. “Yes.”
Loraine eventually decided she would try to walk there with me, and for God knows what reason. Perhaps she felt obliged to make penance after our earlier argument or perhaps it was the Scottish penchant for emotional self-flagellation. Either way, she joined me and we set off with cautious optimism.
Only to fail again.
As usual, the map was not drawn to scale and we ended up asking an angry-looking Chinese man where the park was, to which he replied by crossing his index fingers in a signal that seemed to suggest that the park was closed.
Loraine shrugged and insisted we headed back to the hostel, where I sat pensively, crestfallen, weighing my options. It was at that moment that Judson arrived and, after listening to our tales of woe, kindly agreed to accompany me to the park via cab. With Judson’s practically fluent Mandarin, we arrived at the park to find that it was open and boasted all of the comforts that Judson and The Lonely Planet had promised.
“That man told us it was closed!” I cried excitedly.
“No, that was the signal for the number ten. He probably meant that it was a ten minute walk,” Judson patiently explained.
It didn’t matter. By this point, I was so enthralled and ecstatic that we’d arrived that all of the day’s tension and all of the stress I’d felt for the past three days dissipated in the cool, surprisingly clean and crisp air at the park.
We spent the next hour roaming the winding paths of Jingshan Park, photographing blossoming flowers and the roofs of the city, all sprawled out below us.
It was a calm end to a turbulent day, and when we returned to the duck restaurant that evening, restored and hopeful, the duck was plentiful and the plum sauce decadent.