I’ll never forget how it felt pulling into Beijing on the train, the same train I had been on for seven days straight. I had been sure we were approaching the station for a good two hours as the city kept growing and growing. The changes began with a view of the mountains on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Past the mountains we saw Great Wall in the distance. Larger and larger conglomerations of houses morphed into suburbs, and enormous apartment building began filling up our view. As suburbs changed into urbs, we passed through Beijing West Station, an all-glass high-speed train station which was more futuristic than anything I’ve seen in my own country.
We sped through the huge building and into the core of the city. It was at the terminus that I got my first taste of the scale of China. The thirty or forty foot wide platform access hallway was packed edge to edge with people descending from their trains. We approached the exit, the point of no return, and I realized I was really there. I was in the heart of Beijing. Outside I found a staggering number of people. I soon discovered that this was Chinese New Year, the time when everyone goes to visit their families. For me, this meant that everyone was returning home from Beijing and it was PACKED.
Just to give an idea of how overwhelmingly crowded it was, I felt compelled to take a picture of the sheer volume of people (though it doesn’t quite do it justice).
I walked leisurely through the throngs of people soaking it all in and slowly came to the realization that I didn’t know where I was staying that night. I figured I could easily find a WiFi network and search for a hostel on hostelworld.com. This was when I discovered that China doesn’t do free (money free, not freedom free, though they don’t do that either) internet. I tried the train station WiFi, no luck. I thought the McDonald’s WiFi across the street would be a sure bet. The people behind the counter told me it was easy, I just needed to enter my Chinese phone number which I didn’t have.
It was at this point that my phone died as it was wont to do. I also discovered that public places in China generally don’t have public power outlets. Luckily, I found at the train station a great invention, the phone charging station. It was 1 kuài for 15 minutes so I got to meet some homeless Chinese people and charged up my phone. The sun was beginning to set, and I was beginning to feel slight desperation as the temperature dropped. I had spent the night on the streets in Rome before, but what would Beijing in Winter be like? Well, I walked around phone-in-hand and discovered a meager internet signal at a nearby hotel. I had to walk around awkwardly outside the building for a good twenty minutes, but I was able to jot down a hostel address. I made my way to the subway feeling relieved and ready to start soaking in the Beijing life.