Eye on London

On one wet and miserable evening in London I set out to meet a guy named Anthony who I had been talking to for a little while on one of the gay networking apps. The inescapable truth is that most guys on such apps are only looking for a quick hook up, but on the odd occasion you’ll find someone who is actually interested in having a long and decent conversation. From the chats we’d had I gathered that Anthony was a really sweet guy, a little bit of a nerd – between us we had shared a collection of geeky confessions – and I thought he was pretty cute. He lived nearby in Hackney, so after several nights of long conversations via the app we decided to meet up for drinks at some of the local watering holes. On the night we were set to meet it was bucketing down, but Anthony assured me the bar was still going to be “rammed”. I had a bit of a giggle at the terminology, and when he met me at our arranged meeting point I explained how the word ‘rammed’ had created a more vulgar vision of a gay bar in my mind. I’d struggled through thongs and flip-flops, and singlets and vests, but that was by far one of the strangest Australian/British English word confusions I came across in London.

Rammed, of course, meant full of people, and it seems that wet weather has become a way of life for the people of London that even the iciest downpours can’t keep them at home when a night of drinking beckons. The first place Anthony took me to was Nelsons Head, a smaller pub that was nice and toasty warm inside, and it was, as Anthony had said, rammed. We struggled through the crowds and made our way to the bar to order a few drinks, and ended up having to stand against one of the walls, unable to find a table or even any stools. We put our drinks down on the short bench that lined the walls, and I turned around to soak in the atmosphere. There was a lot of interesting and sometimes slightly erotic art that lined the walls, and high tables full of boisterous men and women who were slugging back pints like water and somehow still managing to not fall off their stools. Overall it was a relatively small venue, but I hadn’t read anything about it on any of the gay maps or guides I had picked up, so it was unlikely I ever would have made it there if I hadn’t met up with Anthony. We stayed there for a while, sipping our drinks and talking more about London, my travelling stories, and our range of geeky shared interests.

After a while we decided to move on to another venue, which was a little further away, but luckily the rain had pulled pack to barely a drizzle so we were fine to walk there. On the way there Anthony stopped to get money out, and he showed me the bizarre language options some ATM’s offer: English or Cockney. I asked him to do Cockney, but he flat out refused. “I have absolutely no idea what it says,” he laughed.
“But isn’t it still English?”
“Well, yes, but… It just isn’t.” Fair enough. I suppose it would have to be fairly different to warrant having its own language option, but it was as baffling as it was hilarious.
We were bound for The Joiners Arms, one of the more popular pubs on the eastern side of London, which I had just missed out on visiting last time I had been out in Shoreditch, although upon arriving at the bar I realised that it was less of a pub and more of a nightclub than I had originally thought. We had to get stamps on our wrists upon entering, although I think we arrived early enough so as not to have to pay, but after we’d ordered our first drinks and sat down at a table, we were informed we would have to stand up while they moved the tables in order to make room for the dance floor. From then on more and more people began arriving at The Joiners Arms, and the music moved from background ambience to the main focus. I love a good dance as much as the next party boy, but I wasn’t so much in the mood that evening, so Anthony and I just spent the rest of the night sitting on one of the sofas along the edge of the room, leaning into each other and having our conversations in brief outbursts of shouting to be heard over the music. Which of course turned into using our mouths for an exchange that was a little less verbal. In the end we called it a night and returned to the cold night to walk home, although Anthony let me stay the night with him so I didn’t have to walk the rest of the way home by myself. We drank tea and watched a few episodes of Family Guy on TV, and I was grateful to have such a cute man to cuddle on such a chilly evening.

***

I’d been telling Anthony about how riding the London Eye was one of the few majorly touristic things that I wanted to do while I was in London, but that I hadn’t wanted to do it by myself. Any attempts at finding other tourists or travellers to join me had failed, but Anthony had said it had been a long time since he had been on the Eye, and wouldn’t mind going again. I’d also mentioned I’d wanted to go at nighttime, something he had never done, so we made plans to meet up and get a bus over to the City of Westminster. We met at a halfway point that was close to a bus stop, and on the bus ride I saw Anthony doing something with his phone. I didn’t mean to pry, but I noticed he was in the middle of writing a status update on Facebook. The incomplete update read: “Thanks everyone for all the birthday love-” and he was staring at the screen, obviously trying to figure out what to say next.
“Um, what the hell?” I couldn’t just sit there and pretend I hadn’t read that. “It’s your birthday! Why didn’t you tell me?” Anthony just smiled and let out a shy chuckle.
“Ah, well, I’d forgotten what day it was when we made these plans. I wasn’t doing anything else anyway.” I looked at him slightly incredulously – the idea that anyone could forget their own birthday was just baffling to me – but then I just smiled.
“Well then, happy birthday! Tonight is just going to have to be extra special, isn’t it?”

We didn’t go straight to the city, but alighted a little further east. Once we got off the bus, I took us down to the water so that I could get a photo with Tower Bridge, arguably the most iconic sight of London along with Big Ben (I had been shocked, though, when Giles had told me that Tower Bridge was not called London Bridge, and that London Bridge was something completely different). From there we crossed the Thames and walked along the southern bank of the river, with Anthony pointing out some of the major sights along the way, such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral from across the water, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the Millennium Bridge, which perhaps excited me the most, as I remembered seeing it get destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was also just a really pleasant walk, on a night that had considerably nicer weather than the last time I had met up with Anthony.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

The Shard.

The Shard.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

London Bridge.

London Bridge.

St Paul's Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

We underestimated the walk, and by the time we got to the London Eye it had been almost an hour of walking, and darkness had well and truly set in. The good thing about arriving so late is that there was relatively no line, and so we purchased our tickets and walked right on in. From a distance, the London Eye looks like any regular ferris wheel, but once you’re up close you realise that you ride not in rickety little carriages, but fancy looking, high-tech berths that can comfortably hold about 15 to 20 people, and look like something out of a sci-fi film. There were a few other smaller groups of tourists in our berth with us, but they were spacious enough that you can move around to get a proper view of they city from all angles. In retrospect, I probably would have been able to see a lot more if I had gone during the day, but there was something about views of a city at night that I find a little breathtaking, and being there with Anthony also made it a little romantic. We stood there watching the scene unfold and the Eye took us higher and higher into the sky. Right beside us there was a small temporary theme park, with rides shooting up into the air, and across the Thames the Westminster Abbey and Big Ben glowed in darkness. In the distance we saw some fireworks going off, clusters of red sparks exploding on the horizon.
“Look! They knew it was my birthday!” Anthony joked. We both took some photos, but from the amount of pictures he was taking, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Anthony was the foreign tourist, not myself. But it was cute to see him enjoying himself so much – I’d unintentionally given him quite a memorable birthday.

Inside the London Eye berth.

Inside the London Eye berth.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

Anthony's birthday fireworks in the distance.

Anthony’s birthday fireworks in the distance.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

A full rotation of the London Eye takes about 30 minutes, so we had plenty of time to soak it all in. Upon returning to ground level, we stopped for a classy birthday dinner at McDonalds. We got it to go, and sat by the river to eat it as we watched the occasional vessel glide past us on the water. Then, hand in hand, we began the walk back along the river Thames, soaking up the riverside culture. The were lots of restaurants and cafes that overlooked the water, as well as parks with children running around and all kinds of street performers and entertainers. There was a stretch along the river where every single tree had been entwined with fairy lights, so we walked under a canopy of luminescence as we left the sounds of the inner city behind us. Eventually we crossed the Millennium Bridge and caught a bus back to Hackney, where we returned to Anthony’s place for more tea and Family Guy. And cuddles, of course. It turned out to be a really lovely evening, and I hoped that he’d enjoyed his spontaneous birthday celebrations as much as I had.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

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Back to Square One: Life Lessons in Beijing

As the captain announced our descent into Beijing, I peered out the window and down at the thick layers of cloud that the plane was heading into. As we emerged from the other side of those clouds… well, it’s hard to be sure if we ever did. I’d heard about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, and as I stepped off the plane and looked out onto the smoggy runway, it was clear – unlike the air – that these tales had been no exaggeration. It took me a while to get out of Beijing airport, considering you have to take a short train trip to get from customs and passport check to the baggage claim area, but after about an hour I was on my way in a taxi. As we drove along the highways and into the heart of the city, I sat staring out the window in something close to a state of shock.

The sky was a distant memory, hidden behind a thick layer of cloud and pollution. It could simply have been overcast, except there was no chill in the weather, nor did the air feel particularly humid. But it was a different kind of heaviness, a weight that hung in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and something that I have great difficulty trying to explain. But every now and then the blanket of smog would ease up a little, and the glowing disc of the sun would be visible through the haze, burning a deep, demonic orange and bleeding into the sky around it. Buildings and warehouses and construction sites whizzed past me on the roadside, and even the regular clusters of trees and other greenery didn’t help to diminish the feeling that I had landed in some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial realm. Even with a population of some 18 million people, all I could see was the gridlock vehicles on the highway, feeling slightly alone in the big grey smog. As far as first impressions go, I guess Beijing was living up to its intimidating reputation.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

***

The next leg of my gap year was going to be a tour – the bucket list-worthy Trans-Siberian Railway trek, starting in Beijing and ending in St Petersburg, Russia. I had flown into China a day early, and had a full 24 hours to spend in the city before meeting my guide and the rest of my tour companions the following afternoon. After settling into the hotel room and taking a quick rest, I decided to go for a wander and see what I could discover, and make my comparisons between Northern and South-East Asia.

A short walk from where I was staying found me at the beginning to Wangfujing Street – one of the most famous and busiest areas in Beijing. Though of course, I had set out into the streets with nothing more than my trusted sense of direction and definitely without a map, and had stumbled across the strip by accident. I have to admit, it didn’t look much like what I expected from China. There was obviously a huge Western and/or American cultural influence on this particular street, with an Apple Store, Forever 21, and the Beijing Foreign Language Book Store. It kind of reminded me of the main strip of Pitt St back in Sydney, except it was four times as wide and probably at least ten times as long – I can’t say for sure, since I never made it to the end. There was the occasional car or bicycle nudging its way through the crowds, but for the most part it was a street heavy with pedestrian traffic.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

After a short time I was approached by a small Asian woman, probably in her mid-twenties, asking me where I was from. The cautious, mistrusting nature I had developed in South-East Asia suddenly kicked in. Until now, I had just been thinking how less geared towards tourists this place had seemed. There were a few souvenir shops and English speaking shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t someone on every street corner trying to sell you things or screaming at you to get into their taxis. I’d also read that Chinese people are often just naturally curious about Western people, so as she asked a few more questions about myself, I began to slowly warm up to her. She told me her name was Charlie, and offered little bits of information about herself in return to all her questions. I let her walk along with me as wandered down the street.

“What are you doing? Are you shopping?” Charlie asked me as I gazed at the buildings round me, the neon lights developing their own glowing aura within the clouds of low-hanging pollution.
“I’m just looking for something to eat, actually.”
“Ahh… You want to try the night markets? They have some very good street food.”
“Umm…” I hesitated for a moment, but so far Charlie had seemed relatively genuine. Surely there was no harm in going for a little walk, right? “Sure, okay.”

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Charlie lead me a short way to a street joining onto Wangfujing, lined with market food stalls on their side. The delicacies were like Khao San Road on crack – there were starfish, dried seahorses on skewers, and even scorpions that were so raw that their legs continued to wriggle and twitch. While I’d been game to try tarantulas served in a Cambodian restaurant, the street food is just one step too far for me, so I settled for a cob of corn. We wandered for a little bit longer, and Charlie suggested finding a place to sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. By this stage I was starting to feel a little more comfortable, so I followed her through another street and into a small tea house. There we sat and chatted for quite some time – we talked about ourselves, the kind of music we like and our different hobbies, about travelling and where we’ve been, and where we want to go, about China and the differences in our cultures. We had two pots of tea, and Charlie explained to me the subtle differences in the flavours, and the Chinese delicacy that is a good brew. Afterwards we also had a glass each of Chinese wine.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I'd seen of Beijing.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I’d seen of Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

I was just thinking about how I hadn’t had wine in a little while, since the beer had been so much cheaper in South-East Asia, when our bill finally arrived. The waitress handed it to Charlie.”Oh, it’s not too much. Do you want to grab this?”
I have to take some of the blame – I wasn’t looking at the menu, so I failed to look the prices as Charlie had ordered. I was a little taken aback by the way Charlie just assumed I was going to pay, and when I looked at the bill and did a rough conversation from Chinese yuan to Australian dollars in my head, I nearly spat out my mouthful of wine.
“What the hell, Charlie? This isn’t cheap!”
She looked surprised, and stammered through her words for a moment. “This isn’t too much, this is what it usually costs for two people.”
I was skeptical. The total amount could have got two people blind drunk in a moderately priced bar in Sydney – it was a lot more than I was prepared, or willing, to pay for two pots of tea in China.

“Can we split it?” I’d asked her. Not for the first time on this trip, I cursed myself for going along with a girl on what could easily be interpreted as a date. I was not going to foot the whole bill for another night out, and especially not this one.
“Oh, I only have 100 yuan,” Charlie said as she offered me a few notes from her wallet. It was approximately $15, and only about a tenth of the total bill.
“That’s a start,” I mumbled to myself as I snatched the notes up, abandoning any pleasantries or niceties. The whole thing had gone pear-shaped, and only now – obviously too late – but my suspicions started to kick in. I even considered just walking out without paying, but I didn’t want to risk causing any more trouble for myself.

So I paid and stormed out of the tea house, Charlie hot on my heels.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said as she shuffled along beside me.
“Know what? How much if would be?”
“I’m sorry, I just thought that Australian are wealthy, I just wanted to show you some nice tea and Chinese culture.”
“I’m a traveller, Charlie. I’m on a budget. I don’t have that kind of money to waste on tea.” She almost seemed offended, as though I was devaluing her culture or tradition, but I refused to believe that Chinese tea should have costed so much in China.
“But, you can just ask your father to send you more money, can’t you?”
I was shocked. “Ahh, no? My dad doesn’t give me free handouts to waste on expen-”
“But you’re his only son!” Again, I was almost shocked into silence. Almost.
“Well I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it works in Australia!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Australia! I only know China!”

It was a slightly profound moment. Here we were, voices raised and arguing in the middle of Wangfujing Street, and suddenly I was the one who felt bad for Charlie. I was getting quite rude and annoyed, but I hadn’t even considered that maybe she was just acting on the limited knowledge that local Chinese people seem to have of Western culture and customs. Maybe all abroad Australians are very wealthy compared to her. The bill had been paid for, yet I suddenly felt guilty for berating her in an attempt to take out my anger to feel better about the situation.

I let out a long sigh. “Okay. It’s fine, just forget it.”
“I’m really sorry, Robert. I had a really good time chatting to you. Maybe we can go to karaoke, I can buy you a beer?”
I still couldn’t figure her out, but I wasn’t going to risk my wallet taking another beating. “I should really get back to my hotel now, I’m feeling pretty tired.”
We awkwardly bid each other farewell after our argument, and I quickly paced home through the backstreets of Beijing, the sense of excitement I’d had from being in a new city replaced with the awful feeling of having another country and currency get the better of me.

***

The following afternoon I met with the tour group I would be travelling the Trans-Siberian with, and our guide gave us a run down on the basics of the city. As she warned us about some of the potential tourist traps and scams, I hung my head in shame as she outlined a scenario so similar to the one I had experienced last night – it was almost as though our guide had been there and was recounting the scene blow by blow. I’d been warned that there are lots of false taxi services at the airport who will try to charge you exorbitant amounts to get from the airport to the city, and I had been so proud of myself that I had managed to spot and avoid them and make my way to the hotel in a legitimate taxi. So it was rather deflating to learn I had quickly fallen into the very next scam to come along after that.

It turned out to be more than just a shallow than a culture clash, but I guess I leant something from the experience in the end. In these unfamiliar places, learn to trust your suspicious instincts. Though I can only hope that every tourist trap I do fall for will better prepare me for avoiding the next one.