I was laid over there on a flight from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to Seoul, South Korea. Thanks to something called a “temporary entry permit,” my layover was transformed from a long drag of airport coffee and magazines into an opportunity for wild adventure.
When you only have 18 hours in a place like China, you can’t waste a second. I’d never been to China before but I was certain of this. To ensure that I didn’t throw away a single moment doing anything that wasn’t awesome, like seeking out a hostel, I booked a cheap hotel room near the airport ahead of time. This way, when I landed at just after 10:00pm local time, I could check in, ditch my bags, and start exploring.
When I touched down in China, my phone was having difficulty connecting to the internet. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but I was without Chinese currency and had no way of looking up the exchange rate. Because of this I accidentally withdrew about 500 dollars worth of Yuan from an airport bank machine. I’m not sure how common muggings are near the Beijing airport but I was a perfectly oblivious target.
I walked outside and hopped into a cab. I showed the driver my hotel’s address, which I had saved in Chinese text on my phone. He nodded in understanding. The car lurched into drive, and onto the unfamiliar streets of Beijing. I looked out my window, quite overwhelmed, wondering if I looked likeBill Murray in the opening scene of Lost in Translation (Well, the scene after the shot of Scarlett Johansson’s bum).
We pulled up outside my hotel; the FX Hotel Beijing Capital Airport and I hopped out. The cab cost about 13 Yuan, if I remember correctly. At the time I had no idea how much this was in dollars, but I would learn later that it worked out to less than three. Not bad. I checked in at the front desk and headed upstairs to my room.
When I opened the door to my room a handful of cards fell onto the floor. I picked them up for a closer look. They were advertisements for call girls. I guess someone had jammed them into my door.
The room was nice. Clean and comfortable with a nice glass shower. I felt like a travelling business man, which was kind of nice, because all I’d felt like for the past 2 months was a worn-out hobo.
I looked up the Yuan to Dollar exchange rate, and realized the absurd amount of money I had withdrawn at the airport. I tucked most of that cash back into my suitcase so I wouldn’t spend it all in a drunken stupor later on. I had a quick shower, and watched Chinese TV through the glass. I couldn’t hear anything but I wouldn’t have understood anyway so it didn’t matter. I hopped out, dried off, changed into the cleanest clothes I had (which were filthy) and headed out.
I barreled out the front doors of the hotel like a maniac, eager to soak up everything Beijing had to offer. The street outside was dark— really dark. None of the streetlights were on. The only real light source was the glow thrown from the hotel lobby.
To my right, everything looked deserted. To the left, it looked almost deserted, save for the lights of a little shop down the road. I headed toward it.
I strolled up to the little shop and peeked through the window, between hand-written signs in the Chinese alphabet. It looked like a convenience store so I walked in. Inside, I realized that I didn’t really need buy anything. The old shopkeeper looked at me like an alien, but this was fine because I was one. To avoid making her nervous I went up to the cash and pointed at a cool looking pack of cigarettes with a shiny golden dragon on it. I don’t smoke, but I have learned that it is always a good idea to have cigarettes with you while travelling. The shopkeeper handed me the smokes, then I pointed to a lighter. She handed me that too and I paid up.
I walked back outside, feeling better equipped. I kept walking down the road through a long stretch of nothing. Finally, after a few deserted blocks, I came to an intersection. Down one way was the comforting glow of commercialism. I walked towards it.
I couldn’t believe my luck, but as I drew nearer it appeared that I had discovered a little bar district. People stood out on the street smoking and muffled music echoed out in the Beijing night. A girl stood outside one of the bars and said something to me in Mandarin. When I didn’t understand, she rephrased herself in broken English. She was a promotions girl, sitting outside to draw people into the bar— not such an unfamiliar thing. Taking this as a sign, I walked inside.
It was a tiny hipster place called Six Bar, with vinyl records and photos of rock icons on the wall. It was smoky as hell, because in most of the world it’s still legal to smoke indoors. Shoehorned into one corner was a little stage. On it, a girl played piano and sang English Christmas songs like I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas in a sad, sultry voice. It was August.
I sat down at a little table and ordered a shot of whiskey and a beer from a waiter. The service was quick. Moments later I was taking the first steps toward getting rip-roaring drunk in China, the place I had been told I could dig to as a kid. All my life, this had been the other side of the world from home. Now home was the other side of the world.
I finished my drinks and realized that I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t speak Mandarin, so mingling with the locals wasn’t going to be easy. I ordered another beer and hoped the locals would come to me. I hoped that I looked out-of-place and interesting enough to intrigue people. It was two more beers before someone came up and sat down in the empty chair at my table. He was chubby guy; red-eyed and obviously pretty drunk. I was glad.
“Hello,” he said, through a thick accent.
“Hi,” I said back, trying hard to enunciate. “What’s your name?”
He looked at me confusedly and I realized he’d already used up most of the English he knew. But he wasn’t out yet.
“Welcome to China!”
I had played this game before; the interlingual challenge of communicating with a stranger in a far-off land. I limbered up my fingers for a night of enthusiastic hand signaling. I pointed to myself.
“Tom,” I said. “Canada.”
“Canada,” he repeated excitedly, apparently understanding. Again, he bellowed.
“Welcome to China!”
We clinked our drinks and then things got quiet. I wasn’t sure this was going anywhere. There’s only so much you can say with finger points, and we’d already said most of it. We clinked our drinks again. The quiet continued. Then Chubby’s friend came over and saved the day.
This new guy was skinnier and a bit taller, but equally red-eyed, so I assume he was equally wasted. The two spoke in Mandarin for a few seconds, then the skinny one turned to me.
“Canada! Welcome to China!” I appreciated his enthusiasm but also hoped like hell that he knew how to say something else in English. He grabbed my shoulder.
“Best friend,” he said, pointing to me. Thank God.
The conversation putted along from there; and was mostly indistinguishable aside from the few English words Skinny knew. He called me things like “brother,” and “handsome.” Handsome is a common compliment in Asia, which I did not mind. We drank a bunch of beers together and I bought a round of shots. We puffed away on the cigarettes I had bought, and I was happy to have bought them. These guys were awesome. After awhile, the Skinny looked me in the eye with laser focus.
“You like Chinese girls?” he asked. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I didn’t want to objectify Chinese women but I didn’t want to give the impression that I didn’t appreciate them either. I fumbled, but came up with an answer I thought was suitable.
“I like all women.” It was the best I could do. I don’t think he understood anyway. He stood up and slugged back the last sip from his beer.
“Beautiful girls,” he said to me. “Let’s go!”
“Oh shit,” I thought, immediately eager to avoid Chinese brothels if at all possible.
“Let’s go!” he said again. I got up, surrendering to curiosity, and paid my tab. Outside, Skinny and Chubby were waiting in a car and waved for me to hop in.
“Oh shit,” I thought again.
I’d never been so daunted by a car. Not because Chubby and Skinny were wasted—they had a DD—but because this car represented a terrifying list of possibilities. Sure, it was possible that they would take me somewhere awesome and nearby, but they also could also mug me. They could also drive me to a bar on the other side of one of the world’s biggest cities, lose track of me, and leave me there. They could crash. I could end up in jail. But I hopped into the car anyway because I knew that if I didn’t I’d regret it for the rest of my life. We drove off down the street and I wondered what I was getting myself into.
We drove about 100 metres before pulling into a parking lot. I sighed in relief. The guys got out so I did too. We were outside what looked like an apartment building. We walked up to the doors and I realized it was not an apartment building.
Inside, it looked like a casino. It was flashy and elegant with hanging chandeliers, bright lights, and burly security guards in suits. A well dressed woman approached us. She said something to Skinny, who then motioned for me to follow him. We ascended a wide, white staircase which led up to a hallway. It was a fancy place, but I still had no idea what kind of place it was. I was starting to wonder how much it was all going to cost.
The well-dressed woman escorted us all into a private room down the hall. It was cozy, with a leather sectional couch, a glass coffee table and a big flat screen. The woman left and I still wasn’t sure what was happening. Chubby went up and turned on the TV. Then he drew a microphone from a shelf near the TV and it all made sense. We were here for some Karaoke. I breathed a little easier.
Chubby sang the hell out of a few Chinese songs. He was actually pretty good. After his third song, the well-dressed woman came back in with a tray of about 30 beers. Considering there were only four of us, this seemed a bit excessive, but I was into it. I turned to Skinny.
“How much?” I asked, making a money gesture with my fingers.
He didn’t understand so I said it again, using my wallet as a prop.
“300,” he said. This worked out to about 50 bucks. It was a little steep, but if an 18-hour adventure in Beijing isn’t the time to splurge, then what is? I’d brought about 600 Yuan out with me, so I could handle it.
I took a beer off the tray and got down to business. A few minutes later, the woman came back with a tray of fruit and cheeses. I asked Skinny again how much it would all cost. I wanted to be certain.
“300,” he said again, and I took his word for it.
I snacked away between sips of beer, loving every second of the weird moment I’d gotten myself into. I tried my best to communicate with my new friends. Their English was limited, but I managed to chat with them a bit, and enjoyed the hell out of their accents. The conversation was clunky with lallations and lambdacisms and probably other “L” filled words that ironically describe the difficulty Chinese people have pronouncing the letter “L.” Skinny put his arm around me.
“Best friend,” he said.
A little later, the well dressed woman showed up at the door again. This time she was followed by four lingerie clad girls.
I thought “Oh shit,” again. From what I understood at the time, this sort of female company is never cheap.I turned to Skinny, this time with much more urgency and asked him one more time.
“300,” he replied. “Which one you like?” He pointed to the girls.
I had no idea how to answer. I was still wary of the potential cost of all this and I felt weird picking a girl. I kept pretty quiet, so Skinny took charge and waved a girl over to me. She sat down beside me and two others filed off towards Chubby and the DD. Skinny pulled the last one down onto his lap.
Things were getting strange very quickly, but so long as it was only costing 300 Yuan it was all okay. Deep down, I guess I knew it was probably going to end up costing more than that, but I figured I’d cross the bridge when I came to it. I resolved to enjoy the hell out of the moment while it was good, so I slugged away at some beers and watched my lunatic Chinese friends howl away into the karaoke microphone.
The girl Skinny had assigned to me whispered things into my ear that I didn’t understand. She tried to grab at my crotch, but my jeans were riding a bit low so she was only grabbing fabric. Uncomfortable with the situation, I tried to convey this to her by pulling at the fabric of my jeans near the knee. I was trying to tell her not to bother but she didn’t get the message.
“Oooh,” she giggled, putting her hand over her mouth. She said something to the other girls in Mandarin and groped at my knee. Then they all giggled. I realized I had inadvertently convinced this girl that I had a foot-long appendage and that if she wanted to grope it, she could grope it near my knee. I didn’t bother trying to clarify. I was loving the chaos of the whole situation so I let it unfold naturally. She rubbed my knee for awhile. It was weird.
Chubby came up to me and jammed the mic in my face. I had worried this moment would come. It was my turn for karaoke. Thankfully I was about nine beers deep, and brave because of it. I walked up to the screen and scrolled through the songs looking for something I recognized. There was only one English language artist.
I gave Boyfriend by Justin Bieber everything I had and everyone applauded me with boisterous enthusiasm.
“Best friend,” Skinny kept calling me.
After my breathtaking performance I sat back down, drank beer, and laughed at everything until the well-dressed woman came back to collect her girls. Apparently, it was time for us to pay up and the hit the road. I fished out my wallet, happy to cough up 300 Yuan for this bizarre experience. Then Skinny turned to me.
“600,” he said.
I was pissed. He had told me again and again that it would cost 300— so many times that I didn’t think this double-sized bill could be stacked up the language barrier. I felt like I was being had. I thought Skinny was my friend. I looked him in the eye.
“No,” I said to him. “300. You said 300.” I’d heard stories like this from friends before; stories of big bills being dropped on tourists after a night of fun with seemingly friendly locals. I was determined not to fall victim to such a scheme. Skinny looked at me, unsure how to proceed. Things got tense for a moment. Then Chubby whipped out his credit card. He smiled wide. I handed the well dressed woman 300 Yuan and Chubby put the rest on plastic.
We walked outside and everything seemed good. By now, it was about 2:00am and I couldn’t believe the luck I’d had. I was just about to say my goodbyes and walk home when Skinny offered me a drive. I wanted to be cautious this time.
“Free?” I asked him.
“Yes, free.” He said. My hotel was no more than a 5 minute walk away, but I decided to take my Chinese friends up on the drive. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to these guys yet. I hopped in the car and a moment later we were outside my hotel. Skinny turned to me.
“100,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. This guy had no mercy, no honour, no dignity! I glared at him, drunk and wounded by his trickery.
“No! You said Free!”
“You pay 50!” He was angry.
Skinny jumped out of the car, slammed his door and walked around to my side. I got out fast, eager not be seated if punches started flying. He shoved me into the side of the car and I pushed him away, careful not to be too aggressive. I was going to try to avoid a brawl in Beijing, if at all possible. I didn’t want to fight this guy, and I didn’t want to end up in a Chinese prison. It was obvious who the Beijing police would side with, after all. Skinny shoved me again. I grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to calm him down, keeping my chin tucked just in case. He yelled at me in Mandarin, spit flying. Then Chubby hopped out of the car.
“Not you too, Chubby,” I thought. I felt betrayed. Just as I was about to make a break for the front door of my hotel, Chubby came up behind me and put his arm around me. He put his other arm around Skinny. He looked us both in the eyes.
“Best friends,” he said.
Skinny let go of me and stormed back into the car. I realized then that his actions weren’t malicious. He was just wasted and angry. These weren’t scam artists, but a couple of drunk guys acting foolish like drunk guys do all over the world. I shook Chubby’s hand, gave him a hug, and walked into my hotel. I never saw any of them again.
In the morning I woke up, savagely hungover, but absolutely thrilled at the night I had just had. I had to be on my plane in a few hours, so I showered and packed up quick. I had a mysterious breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I have no idea what it was. It was so full of Cilantro that it made my mouth hurt. There were also strange strings of rare meat in it. I don’t know what kind of animal these strings came from, but perhaps that’s for the best.
My mystery breakfast in Beijing.
I hopped on a shuttle back to the airport with a churning stomach and said goodbye to Beijing.