Wǒ shì gè nǚ hái. I am a girl. Learning Putonghua. Well, trying to anyway. I’ve been in Asia for four years, and every year I tell myself ‘This is the year!’ I’ve picked it up and put it down, never committing for more than a week.
A recent trip to Beijing gave me a kick in the butt, in the rudest way possible: A surprise hike. No one in Beijing speaks English, hardly even the concierge at our hotel. A pretty BIG mixup drilled home just how important communication can be when you’re traveling.
We set out to see the Great Wall on a Sunday morning. Our hotel arranged a car for us, and assured us the driver spoke English.
“So we’ll start at the part of the Great Wall that starts with a ‘J’ right? Then go to the M town for lunch?” I asked the concierge, unable to pronounce the town names. “Yes that’s right,” they confirmed as if we were on the same page.
Maybe we should get the entire itinerary written down in Chinese and English, I suggested, worried about the plan. “No, no, it’s okay. The driver speaks English.”
We ran out the door ready to see one of the world’s wonders. After a long drive through switchbacks and mountain ranges, our driver pulled into a small village and said: “Out.”
“Here?” We asked in unison.
“Okay… are you waiting for us?” We asked, unsure of what comes next.
Yeah okay, this guy definitely did not speak English. We proceeded to act out our intentions. “So we’ll walk up to the Wall, then come back down?”
I recognized the town. Wait a second. We’re WALKING to Mutianyu? Where are we, exactly? How long will it take? How will we find you on the other side? What if we get lost? The wall goes two ways — do we turn right or left?
So many questions. None of which he could answer. We had his name card, though, with a phone number in case one of us fell off the wall, or we ended up in Mongolia.
We set off into the village, following a sign that said in English: “Great Wall nature area. This area is closed to tourists.” Oh good. But we could see the Great Wall, looking pretty freaking tiny in the distance, and we set off in the only direction possible.
After about a half hour hiking through the forest, we finally climbed to the stony steps and stood on top of the world, looking out across mountains, farms, and tiny villages. It was completely empty, especially glorious with a dusting of cherry blossoms. Only problem with being alone? We hadn’t a clue where to go from there. After fiddling with our GPS and debating, finally some serious looking hikers passed our way.
“Which way to the town that starts with an M?”
“Umm. Moo-tea… Um…”
“Oh, Mutianyu. This way.”
Off they went, with some ill-prepared gweilos on their trail. Later, we’d learn that we were in the Jiakou Section, but it could have been anywhere. A solid 4.5 hours later, and an immensely steep, crumbly and difficult hike behind us, we were most certainly in the beautifully restored section of Mutianyu, and so was the rest of China.
We ducked between tourists and finally reached the parking lot of Mutianyu. Our driver was nowhere to be found. We searched every parking spot, and finally found a security guard to use his phone to call. They spoke in Chinese for a long time. The guard said, “Bus.”
Take the shuttle bus?
To where? For how long? Will the driver be there?
Once again we set off with no direction. Luckily, the shuttle bus only goes to one place so it wasn’t difficult to figure out the next step. And the driver was waiting there patiently, as we would have known all along had we spoken any Putonghua.
I promised myself I wouldn’t go back to China without learning some of the lingo. Not only would it save us so much confusion, but it would enrich the experience dramatically.
So I looked for new ways to learn, without spending loads on classes. Before, I was listening to a lot of audio tapes, which didn’t work for me. I’m just not an aural learner. But then I found this awesome app called ChineseSkill. It mixes visual cues, symbols and sounds, and makes it feel like a game — kinda like what Duotrope does.
I’ve been playing on the app for about a half hour every night and have picked up some very basic words and phrases — important ones, too, like: zài năr? … and yuǎn ma? Hopefully I’ll stick with it this time for more than a week.