Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Knowing when to leave

A bit more about Beijing...as you can see from our pictures we had a great time, saw beautiful sites, learned a lot about the city's history and found the people delightfully friendly. But starting about 6 hours before our return flight home, China started to show us to the door. It was as if the whole city knew we weren’t supposed to be there any longer and was conspiring to make sure we knew it too. We finished a late lunch of mutton and sweet potatoes (cooked hot pot style) at a neighborhood diner we had stumbled upon while trying to find an ATM. Feeling warmed from the delicious food and the hospitality of the family running the diner, we headed back into the biting cold for the next item on our agenda, a visit to the Panjiayuan Market which is similar to a flea market. It took us an hour to get across town in a cab, and by then the sun had begun to set, dropping the temperature below freezing. We ducked into the market only to remember that in the excitement of lunch we had never found an ATM. Without cash the market wouldn’t be very fun, so we turned around and walked several blocks the other direction until we found a bank, and returned 30 minutes later to find that most of the stalls had closed early. A few were still packing up, so we rummaged and haggled as much as possible in twenty minutes.

By this time it was completely dark and the wind had whipped up so that our toes were frozen and it was nearly unbearable to be outside. We decided to skip ahead on our itinerary and have an early dinner at a restaurant we had seen reviewed in the New York Times. We weren’t very hungry but at least it would be warm. The problem was that none of three cab drivers that we hailed knew where it was (or they couldn’t understand our pronunciation of the Chinese—most people in the service industry do not speak English), and at least 2 of the 3 seem to be suffering from night blindness and could not read the address we had written down in Chinese. On our third attempt we made it to the general vicinity of the restaurant and then had to proceed on foot. After meandering a bit we realized we were not going to find it before I passed out from the cold, so we got into our fourth cab of the hour and headed back across town to the hotel, figuring we could just go to the airport early and eat dinner in the terminal.

A couple hours later we had arrived at the airport, checked in, and found a table at Kenny Roger’s Roasters (after four days of Chinese food this sounded appealing). We ordered two roast chicken dinners, in response to which the waiter replied in broken English “no chicken,” and proceeded to point to a picture of chow mein on the menu. Astonished and dismayed that a restaurant espousing to have the “world’s best chicken” could be out of chicken at dinner time, we finished our drinks and cornbread and left in search of another restaurant.

We saw on the airport map that there were three restaurants near our gate, so we went through security and immigration and finally made it to our gate around 10 pm. We found the first restaurant closed and abandoned. The second literally shut off its lights as we approached, the hostess eerily beaming at my distraught reaction. The third and final option was a coffee shop, which mercifully was open. I was still chilled from the day so I ordered hot coffee only to be told they were out. I, patient and tactful as always, say to the girl behind the counter, "What kind of airport is this? No chicken at the chicken restaurants or coffee in the coffee shops?!" She remained sweet and composed and offered me tea instead. And for dinner, our choices were whatever remained in the glass cases, the only food appearing edible being plain croissants and Lays potato chips. Bon App├ętit! We handed over our credit card to pay the 145 yuan (about $20) but were informed rather sheepishly that the credit card machine was closed for the night. We had purposefully used the rest of our Chinese currency earlier that day and had only 15 yuan. Hungry, tired, and frustrated, I felt tears beginning to form, but then heard a man behind us say “it’s on me.” This kind stranger, who thankfully spoke English, turned out to be an English teacher from Singapore who had been traveling with his students. He graciously paid for our measly dinner, and after eating and thanking him profusely, he responded by handing us his business card and saying if we ever visited Singapore he would love to host us. Worried he would offer us one of his kidneys next, we thanked him again and boarded our flight. Yes, it was definitely time to leave.

Our last real meal.

Should've had the chow mein.


  1. Thanks to comments by Dad, I learned that since I saw your initial postings and pics about China, you added more commentary. I know how you dislike being cold and hungry, but now it is a memory adding to your list of adventures. By the time you get back to America, you will appreciate it more than ever. Remember the Kenya experience and how glad you were to return to American soil? The post cards you mailed to friends from there that were emblazoned with "God Bless America?" While there is truly "no place like home," your memories will be rich by the time your term there and all it affords you to experience is over.

  2. So sorry you had a bad exit from China. It seems I have no experience with winter in China, being that I always visit in the summer. Then it is oppressively hot instead of being deathly cold, as I understand Beijing is in winter. I hope that you enjoyed it, even though some parts of it were rather nasty.

  3. You guys are really brave!!! I'm so glad that the man from Singapore was gracious to you. I'm sorry that the trip had such a bad ending. Thank you for sharing about it, though!

  4. This sounds like such a terrible experience...but you tell a fantastic story.
    The kindness of strangers...I love that part. And it happened to me in Chick-Fil-A. At least you really ran out of money! I just didn't have my VISA. Maybe it's best to have the VISA and not the cash. haha :)