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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Noodles and Rice a short story from Beijing.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

I was on the verge of blissful slumber when the red dot flickered across my face, settling right in the middle of my forehead and jarring me from my restful state.

What the hell?

Straining to focus through my drowsiness, I could make out a blurry figure standing to my side. A futuristic gun gripped in a small, pale hand. Aimed right at me, there was a lone beep, followed by an equally unsettling metallic click. Then, much to my relief, it was withdrawn. “Thirty six degrees” purred the air stewardess, with a robotic smile. And off she went with a swish of her red and yellow tie scarf. A faint trail of perfume hanging in the air.

“No Swine flu for you then”, chuckled S. 

Then she was asleep again, such was her way. “Welcome to Beijing Capital International Airport”, announced a tinny female voice as we filed out into arrivals. It was cold and our bodies felt weak from lack of sleep. On touchdown there’d been more Swine flu checks. A swat team of masked doctors going about their faceless work with a brisk mechanicalness. “Thank you, enjoy your stay”.

Beijing traffic jam.

Our first taste of Beijing traffic.

According to the Chinese government back in 2009, Beijingers could expect up to two hundred and fifty clean air days a year. Peering out the taxi window that morning as we hurtled down the motorway, it was glaringly obvious that this wasn’t one of them. In fact, the skyscrapers that flashed by my window were enveloped in a thin, grey haze. The afternoon sun meanwhile found itself reduced to nothing more than a dim, dirty orange disc, seemingly plonked into the sky. A dried egg yolk of a thing, a spent force. 

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Our taxi driver spoke not a word of English. But of course we’d anticipated this, providing him with the Chinese address of our Beijing base, Leo Hostel. And oh was that journey a long one, our progress regularly stunted by bouts of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Consequently, it felt like an age before we finally pulled up on the edge of Dazhalan Street. Stepping out and unloading our bags, I was horrified to discover that the entire road was under construction!

Noodles and Rice a short story from China.

Dazhalan Street, Beijing. July 2009.

Our taxi melting into the smog, S and I stood surveying the miserable scene before us. I recall cursing our luck. That of all the streets in Beijing, we had to go and choose this one. The road had basically been reduced to one massive trench, an army of orange-vested workers striding back and forth.

“How do you even walk down that?” whispered S.

The workmen were busy carrying iron bars, digging holes, fiddling around with pipes and generally shouting and spitting a lot. Right in the middle of all this chaos stood a lone supervisor, his hair slicked back to one side. He wore a white shirt with a black tie and had his hands firmly planted on his hips. Understandably, he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else… anywhere else. 

Dazhalan Street Beijing

“Welcome to Beijing!”

Watching the disorder in a state of disbelief, I soon realised that it was possible to traverse the street. However, it would involve negotiating a comically narrow bed of wooden boards strewn outside the shopfronts. Not that we had a hope in hell of getting our luggage down there. “I’ll go and see if I can find Leo,” I announced hopefully.

“Maybe I can bring someone back, we just need an extra pair of hands”.

Off I went, traipsing through mounds of rubble, tiptoeing over broken boarding and hopping over puddles of foul-smelling filth. Sections of the makeshift pathway consisted of little more than a single board, enforcing me into the role of tightrope walker. One false step and I’d be down in a mud-pit with the labourers.

Noodles and Rice a short story from Beijing.

The madness of Dazhalan Street, Beijing. July 2009.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Every now and then I had to perform the even trickier task of passing another pedestrian. All I could do was press myself up against the wall to allow the other to squeeze by. I’d been struggling on like this for around ten minutes when I started to wonder just how far down the hostel was. I hadn’t seen any building numbers, which left me completely in the dark as to my whereabouts.

Luckily, just when I thought I’d unwittingly passed the place, I caught sight of a large, red sign. I could have easily missed it, as it was partially hidden behind a team of labourers pushing a massive yellow digger. 

Leo Hostel.

Noodles and Rice a short story from China.

Leo Hostel, Beijing. July 2009.

Scrambling over a wobbly, wooden platform, I fell into reception where I was greeted by Sunny, a pretty young Chinese girl with black reading glasses and an alert smile.

“Hello, you are welcome Leo Hostel!”

Explaining my predicament, Sunny’s sunny disposition rapidly melted into genuine concern. “Don’t worry, Noodles will help you!” I was just about to tell her that brunch wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when a plump young Chinese man appeared in a red Leo Hostel T-shirt. He and Sunny engaged in a minute or two of harsh-sounding dialogue, the man nodding as he listened. Then he turned to face me with a wide smile and a firm handshake. 

“My name is Noodles” he laughed, “let’s go!”

I followed him through a back kitchen, past clattering pots and chattering chefs. Then we emerged into a brick courtyard and out into a network of narrow alleyways. Or hutongs, as the Chinese call them. “Err… Noodles, where are we going?” “Shortcut!” he grinned as we took a left… two rights… another left… or maybe it was a right.

“Where are you from?”

“Why you come China?”

“Oh you teacher, can help me improve my English!”

Now we were back onto Nightmare Street, our alleyway adventure having cut out a large chunk of the assault course. “This is pretty crazy Noodles!” I exclaimed, as we closed in on S, a nervous-looking dot in the distance. “Yes… is no good. But they work fast, because government say must finish in three month. No finish on time, no pay!” he cackled.

Short stories from China

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Introducing himself to S with a further dose of Noodles charm, our hero grabbed the largest of our suitcases and led us back down the quagmire. Cutting back into the hutong and another Leo rep was waiting, a morose, slouching teenager who seemed less than enthusiastic about having to assist us.

“This is Rice!” giggled Noodles

as his accomplice relieved me of another bag. “Noodles and Rice, ha ha ha!!!” he howled, slapping me on the back. Scowling somewhat, head to the floor, Rice ploughed on ahead, clearly keen to get back to Leo. “Rice speak no English, very bad” tut-tutted Noodles.

Noodles and Rice a short story from Beijing.

Noodles (right) and Rice (left), a short story from China.

S and I slept for a wonderful twelve hours that night. Hence we were ravenous by the time we got down to Leo’s café for breakfast. Settling into a cosy corner table, we were perusing the menus when who should walk in, but our knight in shining armour, Mr. Noodles. “Ah teacher and lady!!!” he cried, approaching our table.

“Food here is good but please, don’t eat Noodles!!! Eat Rice instead… ha ha ha!” 

Rice himself merely grimaced at us from the corner of the room, where he was mopping a section of the floor by the kitchen door. Empowered by some surprisingly decent coffee and a round of banana pancakes, we quickly set to work on our Beijing exit plan.

Restaurant bar Leo Hostel Beijing

Breakfast time at Leo Hostel.

With teaching jobs already secured in the capital prior to our arrival, the clock was ticking on what would be a glorious four-week, cross-country adventure! I was so excited to hit the road, I could have happily left that day. But sadly there was stuff to do. Firstly, we had to transfer our luggage over to Linda and Ivan, an English couple who’d kindly agreed to look after our stuff while we were away.

Secondly, we needed to make our way to Beijing South Train Station. Our quest was to secure two tickets to the nearby city of Tianjin, the first stop on our trip. Questionably, we decided to tackle a five kilometre walking route in what turned out to be thirty five degree heat! What’s more, it was another smoggy day, the sun conspicuous by its absence.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Getting away from our hellish street as swiftly as possible, the route took us through several expansive residential areas. As anticipated, the city was exceptionally busy and noisy. A grey, largely colourless concrete jungle soundtracked by the incessant honking of passing traffic. Moreover, this was the first time I saw people wearing masks. Thus I couldn’t help but wonder if we should be wearing them too. And what, exactly, we were currently breathing into our lungs. 

Smoggy day Beijing.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from Beijing.

There was much to take in that day. A lady selling puppies from a rusty old cage. Groups of ripped men swinging around on monkey bars in a metallic street gym. We got more than a few looks from curious locals as we made our way. There was a high-pitched “helloooo!” from some giggling school children and plenty of cheerless staring, mostly from the elderly.

One particularly sour-faced woman even took time out from her hobbling to openly gawp at us. Standing just inches away from me, she proceeded to inspect my shoes at great length before eyeballing me with an uncompromising death stare.

“Ni hao!” I chirped hopefully, but she didn’t reply.

As the day wore on, it got hotter and hotter. As a result, many Chinese men began rolling their T-shirts up to their chests for relief. What a curious sight this was for us China newbies, especially those older men proudly sporting their unsightly potbellies. 

Noodles and Rice a short story from Beijing.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Here and there we had to cross mammoth four-lane roads, the green lights giving us barely enough time to make it over to the other side. This was compounded by the fact that most drivers impatiently honked and revved at us as we scampered to safety. It was all rather stressful. 

Table tennis park Beijing.

A table tennis park in Beijing.

A kilometre or so from the train station, we came upon a small park where pairs of men battled each other at table tennis. One of the matches, played by two bare-chested men, proved fiercely competitive. They celebrated and mourned the passing of the points with great gusto. “Yaaaagh!!!” screamed one of them, following a prolonged rally, thumping the table victoriously with his fists.

Suddenly, and much to my surprise, the men called me over to play. Thrusting his bat into my hand, the guy who’d just lost the rally jogged over to a nearby water fountain to refuel, while I got my ass royally kicked by his friend. Ten minutes in the searing, smoggy heat proved more than punishment enough for me. So I made my excuses, cajoled my new friend into a photo and we were back on our way.

Noodles and Rice a short story from China.

Making friends in Beijing, July 2009.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

When we finally rolled up at Beijing South, the damn thing was closed. We knew something wasn’t right the moment we began our approach through the station’s huge, deserted square. We were about halfway down when a posse of street kids sprinted over. One of them was barking at me in frenetic Chinese, stabbing a finger back at the station. “Yes, we know”.

Tired from the morning’s exertions, S suggested we take a taxi over to the main train station. On arrival, we joined the chaotic throng of bodies swarming in all directions as we attempted to work out which ticket counter we needed. After much confusion, a whole lot of waiting and the palpable discomfort of the man behind me hanging over my shoulder, we emerged victorious as the proud owners of two train tickets to Tianjin! 

Beijing Railway Station.

Beijing Railway Station.

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Christian Torrissen.

“Sounds like you’ve had a busy first day!”

laughed Linda, as we all clinked glasses. We were at a restaurant somewhere in Chaoyang District, a massive space decorated in dark wood and hanging red lanterns. The place was chock-a-block with hungry customers. And yet there seemed to be just as many waiters, many of whom converged around our table.

Noodle Restaurant Beijing

With Linda and Ivan ‘somewhere’ in Beijing. July 2009.

They took my coat, pulled back my chair for me and pounced to replace my beer the second I took my last gulp. They jumped to attention when I rose for the toilet. At one point, a girl came scuttling over to ask me what was wrong. But I’d just been scratching my ear.

And then there was the food, a magnificent array of mouthwatering dishes that had me ruing my lack of chopstick skills. I loved the spicy runner beans with minced pork. And the fried eggplant, served in a sweet, honey sauce! There was also an entire fried fish, grisly head intact, served with chopped onions in a rich, tomato and garlic sauce.

Chinese runner beans and minced pork.

Runner beans with minced pork. A Beijing staple.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.

Linda and Ivan were so exceptionally hospitable it was humbling. One of S’s cousins had put us in touch with them and they’d gone out of their way to welcome us. Ivan taught us a few Chinese phrases, Linda offered invaluable cultural insight and they even picked up the dinner bill.

We’d only known them for a few hours and yet it felt like hanging out with old friends. “If you need a place to stay when you get back to Beijing, just let us know” clucked Linda. Wow, I thought, we’ve really landed on our feet with these two.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Noodles and Rice, a short story from Beijing.

“So sorry to see you go,” pouted Noodles

as S and I checked out at reception. “Thanks!” I said, tightening the straps on my backpack. “Rice will miss you very much, ha ha ha!” he squealed, as the grump bag himself slinked outside, lit a cigarette and frowned off into the distance.

Exiting Leo into a pleasingly clear and fresh morning, I looked up at the sky to see hints of blue forcing their way through the clouds. Ready?” asked S, as the sound of hammering and drilling kicked in down the street. “Yup” I replied, and off we went towards our great adventure.

‘Noodles & Rice’ is the first chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.

Why not also check out my location reports from across Beijing.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.

7 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    Well written, Leighton! I especially liked the opening.

    October 30, 2016 - 4:02 pm Reply
  • Klipped

    I’ve been to Leo Hostel! Cool place, cute story.

    October 30, 2016 - 5:43 pm Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    Good story, Leighton. Well written. It kept me wanting to read more. Also reminded me of how challenging traveling in a country where you don’t know the language can be hugely difficult.

    August 11, 2020 - 6:54 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading this updated version Mary! This was a 5 week project, so I’m glad to be finally republishing.

      August 11, 2020 - 6:57 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Your environmental descriptions are spot on and bring back many memories. You were very brave.

    August 11, 2020 - 11:03 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Wow, what an adventure! Very interesting you mentioned the fact you traveled during the swine flu scare– really is a 360° with what’s currently going on with the pandemic and its effects on travel. I went to Beijing about a month after you were there, but I had a different experience as I took a guided tour. Even if one were to speak fluent Chinese, it still can be quite the adventure trekking China on one’s own! Can’t wait to read more of your stories in the country. 🙂

    August 12, 2020 - 2:46 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Wow, we were there at the same time.! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the series. Interested to hear your thoughts.

      August 12, 2020 - 10:21 am Reply

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