Even though we're six months in, today feels like day one of our trip again.
As we board the plane to Beijing, Stephen and I are both a little jittery. I am worried about the events that will befall our bikes, wrapped in plastic in the plane's luggage hold. I am worried that we'll be mobbed by people as we try to rebuild our bikes in the Beijing airport. I am worried about finding our way through the maze of streets to our hostel. I am worried that cycling in China will be miserable, disappointing, or just too hard.
Place Your Seat Back In The Upright Position
All of these thoughts are with me as we take off from Berlin Tegel airport, but I also feel relieved. We have managed the rigamarole that goes with flying with bikes – finding packing materials, removing pedals, turning handlebars, wrapping the bikes in layers of plastic, cardboard, and tape, renting a van, checking in at the airport – without incident.
Flying with Hainan airlines, who have a generous luggage allowance, including bikes as standard luggage, means we have avoided any excess baggage fees. This is a far cry from our flight from LA, where the check-in staff fretted over our bikes and charged us an extra $300 each for the pleasure of carrying them.
When we land in Beijing, I am expecting to be thrust into the legendary mob of people for which China is so famous. It is disconcerting to find that Beijing airport is the quietest airport I've ever been in, and our bike re-mantling process is met with a few second glances. Our only audience is one bored airport staff member on a break.
Before we know it, we are winding our way through the outskirts of the city. We don't even get lost on the sometimes tortuous way to the hostel, so good are the maps of Beijing in our favourite app, PocketEarth.
We have planned some acclimation time in Beijing, before we set out on our bikes once again. This is Stephen's first trip to Asia, and I have only been once before, on a brief foray to Vietnam with my mom and sister. On that trip, we stuck with private drivers, upmarket hotels, and foreigner-friendly restaurants, so we know we'll need a little time to get over our culture shock.
Here's Looking At Me
During the past six months, we've become accustomed to being strangers in strange lands. On our bikes, we are constantly stared at, questioned, and spoken to in languages we cannot comprehend. And yet, Europe is familiar. More than that, in Eastern and Northern Europe, we blend. People are tall, overwhelmingly white, and in good shape, just like us. In Europe we can disappear into a crowd, go unnoticed, and sometimes even get along in the local language.
In China, we are Foreign Tourists, with a capital FT. There is no way to disguise it, to pretend we belong here, to go unnoticed in a crowd.
Still, we are surprised by how rare the sight of a non-Asian tourist is on the streets of Beijing. So much so, that after a few days, we start to do as the Chinese do, and gape openly at any white people we see. We're not the only ones. One day, while walking through one of the massive, crowded Beijing train stations, Stephen hears a sentence of English.
"Look, there's a white guy!"
As Stephen scans the crowd, looking for the source of the comment, he catches the eye of a black woman passing by with her partner. Surely they are the only couple in the city who stand out even more than we do.
So far, at least, the staring doesn't bother us.
For a start, it gives us the opportunity to gawk at the locals as much as we like. After all, if they're staring at us, there's no reason we shouldn't stare right back. We can be nosy in a way that would have made me uncomfortable anywhere in Europe, and therefore, we get to see into people's everyday lives much more than we could before.
Second, the looks are almost always friendly, welcoming, open-mouthed awe. All it takes is a smile and a 'ni hao' from us to tender a huge grin from whomever might be staring, be it a wizened granny, smart-looking businessman, or adorable pig-tailed child.
Of course, we have seen the awesome sights of Beijing. We are staying in one of the famous hutongs, a winding one-storey rabbit-warren residential area. The Forbidden City is incredible in its vastness, and in its ability to process the thousands of visitors who arrive each day. The Great Wall is awe-inspiringly great, something that everyone should see.
But our first impressions of China are all about us. We are becoming aware of ourselves in a whole new way, not as one of the pack, or a part of a group, but as a couple of gawky giraffes in a field of graceful deer, or a couple of forks in drawer full of chopsticks.
You can join our daily adventures in China at My Five Acres.
All photos copyright Jane Mountain, 2013