It’s our first night in Beijing for affordable China tours, and my boyfriend and I sit at a table in a local restaurant, trying to order. Between us we have only a few words of Mandarin and, worse, I’m a vegetarian, but the waitress tries to help us, using a mixture of sign language and broken English.
We eventually pick two meals, marvelling at the cheapness. The waitress tries to dissuade my boyfriend from the chicken dish that he’s ordered.
“Very hot,” she tells him, but he shrugs her off. He loves spicy food, and with everyone watching, he can’t back down.
I’m not used to being stared at yet. We are the only foreigners in the restaurant, and at 6ft 4in, my boyfriend towers over the locals. I feel unsure of myself, tired and befuddled by the eight-hour time difference and more than 20 hours of travelling as part of popular China tour package. I have never been anywhere so foreign.
The taxi journey from the airport to the hotel took longer than I’d expected. I spent most of it staring out at the endlessness that is Beijing. Having been drawn to the city by what I had heard of its hutongs (narrow streets or alleys), gardens and temples, I was overwhelmed by the dreary urban greyness. I had never seen the sky white with smog before, and my chest hurt from the pollution, making it difficult to breathe.
Our taxi took us to the wrong hotel – part of the same chain, but not the one we had booked. It was another 40 minutes across town to the right hotel; another 40 minutes spent slumped in a car seat, my skin prickling with unwashed sweat.
As a treat from a relative, we are staying in the Hilton for the first night. The hotel is lovely, the air conditioning refreshing, and the bed soft and deep in a way that we will discover is not typical for China. It isn’t in a good location, however, surrounded by eight-lane roads and piles of brick, and we didn’t feel safe when we went to get food. Then we went out to have a walk in the Tiananmen Square which is the must-see for top 10 China tours.
Our waitress disturbs our silence by bringing out our order. I pick rice and sweetcorn out from between unidentified seafood as my boyfriend eyes his bowl uneasily. It appears to be equally comprised of dark, dried chillies and bits of broken chicken bone. Ominously, staff gather at a short distance, nudging each other. He takes a bite, crunching horribly, and immediately gasps and turns red, gulping water from his bottle until it’s finished, swearing between gulps.
“This is amazing,” he chokes, but I know that he’s in serious discomfort. It’s impossible to be sympathetic given that the waitress warned him so emphatically.
From a few feet away, the staff screech with mirth. I catch the waitress’s eye and we grin at the foolishness of men, a moment that transcends the barriers between us.
You can learn more cities and other info via travel China guide.
Just back: A Beijing taste test