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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stop One: Beijing

I spent all day on Saturday packing & picking up some last-minute items before I left Shanghai to travel for a month. My flight was to leave at 10:00 pm, so I had plenty of time to dilly dally. Even though it was a late flight, getting into Beijing after midnight, I expected the airport to be a madhouse with everyone traveling home for the holiday.

Chinese New Year is much like Christmas in the West in that almost everyone takes time off from work, & people travel to their hometowns to be with their families. They spend most of their time relaxing at home & eating traditional New Years treats, & everything closes up for a week or two.

It's the most important Chinese holiday, so people are willing to endure incredible travel hardships in order to get home. I've heard of people buying a standing room only ticket on a train for a 30-hour ride because there were no more seats left. I love traveling by train, but 30 hours even sitting down would be too much for me. These people are serious about their Spring Festival.

Thinking there'd be a lot of people bustling & jostling at the airport, I got there three hours early for my domestic flight. I was pleasantly surprised to see only three people in line at the airline check-in counter. & since I got there so early, I was able to hop on an earlier flight, which turned out to be only half full. Where were all the people? Maybe they were all standing on the train.

I arrived in Beijing & was easily able to tell the taxi driver where the Happy Dragon Hostel was. I had been there with my friend Debra last October & liked it enough to come back. For 45 RMB (about US $7) I got a bed in a snuggly warm dorm, complete with locker & bathroom. I snuck in with my headlamp on & slipped into bed under a fluffy comforter, & soon drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, I met my dorm mates - two European girls slow traveling around Asia. They shared some oranges with me before they headed off to the Summer Palace for the day. I decided to spend the day relaxing in the cafe at the hostel, since I saw most of the tourist sights here in Beijing the last time I was here. Besides, my flight to Harbin leaves today at 4:00 pm & I wouldn't want to tempt fate. Anyway, it's nice at the hostel.

In Chinese, a hotel is called a 酒店 jiǔ diàn "wine place". The origins are similar to the idea in English of an "inn" - a place where travelers can rest for the night, have a bite to eat, share a cup of wine with fellow travelers. When I hear the word "inn", I think of dusty men on horseback - or even camels - stopping in the middle of the night to rest their weary bones. In novels, they always wind up by the fireside with the patron, philosophizing over brandy. The next day they pack up their belongings & continue on their way.

The modern-day version of that is the hostel - a place where travelers stop for the night on their way to somewhere else. There's almost always a cafe or bar where the guests gather to share stories of the road or wax philosophic together. The next day many of them move on, continuing their journey to other destinations. Some of them stay a little longer, making connections with other hostel guests for a few days as they tour the area. It's all very transient, yet there is an unmistakable sense of community - the community of travelers. This is where I feel most at home.

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