We left Capital Airport and instead of a city decrepit with age and neglect, we found ourselves subjected to eight lane freeways with expensive, late model vehicles from Europe and Japan. Not even one older-model car could be seen on the entire drive, which seemed quite impossible coming from country Australia, where the ancient rusted Fords and Holdens, lived on indefinitely.
As we proceeded, the buildings began to get higher, but unlike the small centralised CBD of most modern capitals, the heart of this city just kept getting bigger. I managed some perspective by understanding that China has something like 1.3 billion resident souls and that out of that number, Beijing has a population of around 16 million, which is almost the population of Australia. Still, knowing didn’t prepare us for the reality. With a total area of 16,800 sq. km, Beijing’s municipality is roughly the size of Belgium.
Darkness however, could well hide the discarded rubbish, the chicken coops and our expectation of an impoverished people. As I considered this, Katie tugged on my arm. Spread out before us over several city blocks, lay the notoriously iconic, Tiananmen Square; deserted and adorned with elaborate lighting. I felt the hair on my neck rise. For good or bad, momentous events occurred here. Who could ever forget the young man who stopped an army tank with nothing but bravery.
Ah, hold on a minute. Here’s the real China; the one I expected. As our taxi pulled up in front of the King’s Joy Hotel, our senses became overwhelmed by a profusion of colourful lanterns and banners, and connecting streets containing masses of noisy local people. It looked so inviting we almost jumped from the vehicle before it stopped.
The staff at the King’s Joy seemed particularly nice, but also adamant that they needed cash for certain deposits, before they could provide us entry to our room. With some language difficulties they managed to suggest: ‘Ah, esteemed customer, you are so clever to present us with Yen, which, so, so sorry, cannot be accepted.’ Roughly translated, this meant, ‘Aussie imbeciles, you have purchased Japanese Yen instead of Chinese Yuan at Melbourne airport, which is a currency that is not accepted here. Please come up with the right money or bugger off.’
We looked up at the clock; nearly eleven thirty pm. We both felt tired and annoyed, and more than a bit embarrassed, but we ventured out into the streets, eventually finding an ATM with the help of a group of teenage girls. I’m not sure this could ever happen at home. The girl’s helpful and relaxed manner with European strangers, seemed odd and surprising, particularly late at night and in a dark street.
It must have been close to midnight, as we made our way into the street adjacent to the ATM. To our surprise, we found it full of young children and their parents playing games. Kids screamed with delight as they battled it out playing badminton and tag, and games of the imagination that come easily to children. The experience of their happy community took us both back to our own childhoods, where we could also safely enjoy such evening pastimes.
Our currency stupidities seemed forgotten when we returned to our digs, laden with enough Yuan to ensure our stay. The staff elevated us most politely, to a new status worthy of their establishment, but the amusement that twinkled from each eye, implied: ‘If you can’t work out the difference between Japanese and Chinese currency, you’re in for a difficult stay.’
Our entrance and subsequent welcome to bustling Beijing, felt both wonderful and thought provoking, but by this time, we felt truly shagged, having just travelled over 9,400 km and been up for 22 hours. Our eager explorations of old Peking could wait till the morrow.