The short policeman pulled out a pocket map book from his navy overcoat, flicked to a page halfway through and pointed to a dot in the centre. That’s when I realised he was indicating his hometown to me on the map of China. He wasn’t from Beijing and he seemed as lost as I was in this strange city. My heart sank.
I had been saving all year to go travelling again. This time I decided that I would head for New Zealand but allow myself a real stopover on the way with 10 days in China. As a special treat I booked the plush “soft seater” 12 hour overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing. The day after that I lost my wallet, which meant that money would be very tight from now. But I decided to push on with the trip because I really wanted to climb the Great Wall.
The train ride was fantastic. I enjoyed a meal and wore the little slippers they provided and fell asleep listening to the sound of the train rush through the Chinese landscape.
At 7.28am the next morning we arrived. Why does it seem that every time you step outside inChina a new adventure begins? I left the security of the train and braced myself for the freezing conditions. I used my phrasebook to ask a shopkeeper the way to the Metro and got off at the nearest stop to my hostel. Or so I thought.
After an hour of wandering the streets with a huge crumpled map and frostbitten hands I admitted to myself that my map-reading skills were worse than useless and I approached a policeman for help. After all, wasn’t this what Mum had always told us to do?
The first guy I spoke to didn’t seem to know of the hostel that I pointed to on the leaflet. But his friend came rushing over, eager to help. That’s when he produced the map of his hometown and I knew that finding the hostel wasn’t quite within my reach yet.
However, this policeman was not to be deterred and he picked up his belongings: one plastic bag of peanuts, one plastic bag containing a pair of boots and a broken sports bag, which I later discovered contained photo albums and his college certificates, and off we went.
He set off at a quick march down the road and I followed as fast as I could. We reached the police station and he burst through the front door, loudly declaring that he had a foreigner in tow who needed help. At least that is what I assume he said because I could not speak a word of Mandarin.
Suddenly five policemen appeared in the foyer and began smoking and drawing complicated maps whilst all the time studying me, frozen to the plastic seat in the corner.
Eventually the policemen decided that I should take the number 22 bus to the hostel. They pointed in the direction of the bus stop around the corner and I assumed I would try and thank them for their help and wave goodbye.
However, my policeman did not consider his mission to be over yet and he once again gathered up his peanuts, his boots and his sports bag and led me out the door of the station. The policeman seemed in no hurry as he stopped off to buy a copy of a dreadful looking magazine called “Weapon 2007”.
Eventually we reached the bus stop and jumped aboard the number 22. We rode a short time down the street and leapt off at the bus stop close to the hostel, the peanuts, the boots and the sports bag still being dragged along the polluted street.
Finally, we crashed through the front door of the hostel and were met by the smiling face of the tiny receptionist who could not understand why our journey had been so long-winded. She told me that I looked tired and suggested that I rest immediately in my room. I nodded in agreement and headed for the door to the courtyard. I thanked my policeman profusely for his assistance and returned his firm handshake.
As I turned back I chuckled to myself when I saw him pulling out his photo albums for the receptionist, still in the mood to talk and not work and still seeking company as he offered her a peanut from the plastic bag.
December 11th, 2007