I was assured by the student helpers that the language barrier would be less of an issue here. The fact that my first point of contact in Beijing was my driver, who spoke just a few words of English did not fill me with hope.
The journey from the airport to my hostel took around 1 hour. Having squeezed the VW Passat down a side road that looked unworthy for any sized car, let alone a Passat, I was then abandoned at the hostel. It was a very unusual place. Situated almost on the banks of a river, lied this small but cosy building. As I entered and walked down the corridor, I noticed a kitchen-reception area (yes, they really were combined), and adjacent to it was a randomly placed sink and then a door to a quadrant of open-air seating space. There were many doors of varying shapes, sizes and colours, yet I was (and still am) unsure as to whether they were hostel rooms. Everything seemed all too sporadic for my liking, yet I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Which was hard to do, given that after all this exploring inside the hostel itself, I was still not approached or greeted.
Only after I said Ni Hao in a raised voice did a lady emerge from a side room, behind the kitchen counter (or perhaps reception desk). Frustratingly, she didn’t speak English either – yet deceivingly the hostel’s name was written in English on the outside of the building. Nonetheless I managed to check in, and more importantly, had time to FaceTime my family back in the UK before heading out to meet with a friend for dinner. Thank goodness I knew a local Beijinger! After a small feast of tasty local food (including ‘fungus’ spaghetti and udon noodle soup with quails eggs), I was shown round the Hutongs for the first time. A huge network of side-streets, alleyways and hidden alcoves, all interconnected and seemingly identical but actually very different in their character. On the way, we also walked parallel to the river, the same river that flowed past my hostel, and words cannot describe just how different the scenes were here. Bars and clubs lined the banks of the river, but these weren’t ordinary bars and clubs. These were amenities that would compete on a daily basis to be the loudest on the street. The goal is of course to attract the most people into the bar or club. As the front of each venue (generally) would be competely open, they each would try various tactics to entice mesmerised tourists inside. From blasting live music at the loudest of volumes; to hiring promoters to stand outside come rain or shine; and even having pole-dancers perform any time from around 8pm onwards. Judging from the reactions, this was not something characteristic of Chinese culture!
After a brief tour of this very polarised region of Beijing, I retired relatively early for the night, in order to prepare for a more extensive visit to the Hutongs tomorrow.