Lord knows I didn’t want to spend hours walking through the heart of Beijing yet there I was, trudging down dirty streets with a trail of sweat in my wake and an accumulating cloud of soot fogging the air around me.
“Go see the Forbidden City,” my friend told me. “It is the one place you must go. You will have fun.”
He was both right and wrong. He didn’t know my homebody spirit. He didn’t understand my preference to lounge. And yet I started my adventure marching by soldier after soldier as I left my hotel. I found a place to get iced coffee in a land of little ice and boiling lemon water.
A man tried to drag me into a tinted-windowed tea house. A woman shoved a fat baby at me. I stood in great crowds of people as they danced the deadly “we have to cross the eight-lane highway” waltz while cars continued to turn and motorbikes sped by.
Then I discovered the city’s brand-spanking-new subway and managed my way to Tiananmen Square, to the city’s heart.
I stood in a decades-long line with thousands of other folks waiting for their chance to glimpse through a smudged glass at an imperial world removed from history.
I stood out in the line like a familiar face in a crowd of strangers. They all wanted to know me. They all wanted to be my friend.
People took pictures of me. They tried to touch my soft, brown hair, and they admired my ginger sideburns. They drew too much attention to me. Soldiers noticed and pushed me to the front of the line.
I got lost in those palatial gardens and winding walkways, bumping into one tourist after another, all of us seeking a momentary glimpse of history or a short-lived admiration of the palace’s fountains and stone gardens. I read the location boasted fourteen million tourists a year. They must have all come that very day. A current of tourists trapped me and we flowed through the gardens before spilling out the back door.
I didn’t even snap a photo. I wanted to go home.
So I walked. And I walked. And I walked some more. Crystal blue skies gave way to murky smog and, as the sun began to set, I realized I was lost, thirsty, and hungry beyond reason.
I began asking locals for help. “Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma?” — “Do you speak English?”
It was a foolish question to ask in my “I speak like a toddler” accent. If they didn’t know my language, they wouldn’t answer the question.
But folks began to point. I asked. They pointed. I asked again. They pointed some more. I followed a maze of extended fingers through the backstreets and alleys on my way to an unknown somewhere.
They directed me for more than an hour. I feared the locals were toying with me and felt like a child separated from his mother at the mall. My heart raced. My temples pounded. My lips tasted like a desert. I envisioned the worst. I would be lost forever in that city. No one would find me ever again.
“Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma?” I asked a sweet, old lady with a bag of groceries resting on a back bent by decades of hard labor. Her crooked bones betrayed her kind nature. Noticing my anxiety, she smiled at me as a mother would. Gently grabbing my wrist, she pulled me across an empty road and around a corner.
She beamed and pointed at my destination: a table full of skinny white people outside a glowing bistro mumbling to themselves, munching on pizza, and chugging oversized bottles of thirst-quenching Yanjing beer.
“Xièxiè,” I told the woman. “Thank you.”
She spoke in Mandarin words I wanted to understand. “There, there. You’re alright,” I guessed.
That old, wrinkly woman was, to me, a paragon of country kindness in a harsh urban landscape. I was sorry to see her go.
And so, alone in the street, I joined my new friends. Despite my hotel room beckoning me, I resigned myself to European entertainment in their tiny “taste of home” retreat. They shared with me Hawaiian pizza, the worst of all pizzas. They drowned me in glasses of cheap beer. The simple meal felt like a kingly feast at the end of a scary and dangerous adventure. And their stories were legendary.
They told of grand exploits and daring travels, of their never-ending airport sagas and treks through their Australian deserts, their jungles of Bali, their mountains of Nepal, and their Japanese temples — only stories professional tourists could tell.
Then they dragged me away with them through turn after turn of crumbling, two-story buildings as the wild dogs of Beijing, smelling ham pizza, begged us for food — amidst crowds of locals admiring our soft brown and blonde tufts and our sunbaked skin until, at last, I found myself again.
A blue sign pointed me back into the city’s glistening underground, to bright lights and subway platforms and maps. With a little old lady and too-tall European saviors in my fond memory, I dragged my tired feet beyond the denizens of peacekeeping soldiers lording over the ocean of commuters until the door slammed shut in my hotel room where I most wanted to be.
I felt pride in myself. I, a Bilbo Baggins’ish homebody, had my grand adventure. I went there. I got lost. And I came back again. My friend was right. I did have fun in an “I’m going to cry in a corner” sort of way.
And I learned that Beijing is like any other city. If one is lost and resigned to irrational despair, there will always be a smiling face eager to point him the way.