Despite the fact that I believe I’m risking my life everytime I try to cross the street here, and how everytime I’ve hopped in a Bejing cab I’ve pressed my knees up against the seat in front of me waiting for the inevitable crash to occur, I somehow found myself flying through downtown Beijing last night on the back of a stranger’s moped with a bag of hockey gear dangling off of my shoulder.
While I was in the Netherlands last year I found a hockey league that I think helped with any homesickness I might have gotten. Just being out on the ice a couple of times a week made me feel like I was back in Canada. Because of this I wanted to make sure that I found a league in Beijing before I left and sure enough I did. I figured getting hockey all winter is worth the pain in the ass of lugging a bag of gear through a couple days of transit.
Last night was supposed to be my first game. The league’s website, unfortunately, only provided a crudely drawn map of where the arena was. I emailed the league’s commissioner for better directions that I could give a cabbie but he responded that I might as well give directions to a cat because no cabbie in Beijing knows where this place is.
I probably should have called it a night there and planned a ride well in advance for the next game. But, having just turned down dinner with a coworker and “the best chicken wings in the area,” as well as having gotten my gear ready and waiting by the door, I had to give finding this place my best shot. I grabbed my Beijing city map, marked down the location of the arena and remembered that there was a McDonalds drawn on the crude map right beside the entrance to the arena.
I grabbed 2000 yuan for my registration fee and left at 5:30, giving myself 2.5 hours to get to the game because I first had to buy a stick and I knew it might take me some time to find the arena. The league website says that there’s a store that sells hockey gear at a place called the Chaoyang Sports Center, it’s on the other side of town but fortunately only a 15 minute drive away from the arena, according to Google Maps.
A 50 yuan and 25 minute cab ride later I get dropped off at the Chaoyang Sports Center which appears to be nothing more than a driving range and a soccer stadium. The moment my hockey gear hits the ground from getting out of the cab a 18-19-year-old kid runs out from the driving range, picks my bag up and starts walking it inside. I try to politely grab it back as he’s walking away with it, but then think maybe the hockey store is inside and this is the kind of first class treatment they give all their customers.
Nope. Definitely just a driving range.
After the kid drops my gear off at a tee I pick it up walk back to the lobby and try asking the girls at the front desk if they know where a hockey store might be. They seem to understand until I get handed a score card for the mini golf. I try handing it back to them, asking slower and using the best Chinglish I possibly can “Hockey…zai nar?” (zai nar means “is where?” from what I’ve gathered) Again one of the girls seems to understand reaches under the desk and hands me a pencil.
Before long I’m acting out slapshots and skating motions, amidst a gathering crowd, but to no avail. Until I realize that I have a whole bag of equipment beside me, as soon as I show them my skates they actually do understand and shake their heads. No one seems to know of any place associated with skates nearby.
I did have one lifeline, my coworker Pinpin who is nearly fluent in English. I called her, explained to her my situation and after passing her to the kid who had carried my bags (I figured if anyone would know it would be him) I got a definite answer, no store nearby that he knew of.
After exhausting all avenues of communication that I could think of it was 6:30 and I knew that I should probably be heading to the arena. I grab a cab towards the rink hoping that someone at the game would at least be able to lend me a stick. Beer leaguers tend to carry multiple sticks with them, even though most only break a stick once every two-three years. The cab driver pretended to know what I was pointing at when I showed him the map, but I quickly figured out he had no clue when he missed the first turn.
The arena is beside Xinglong Park, he drops me off at the Xinglong Community, a neighbourhood of apartment buildings. Having no idea what Xinglong Park looks like, I took him on his word that he was leaving me at right place after only a short debate about where we were. I quickly realized though that I likely wan’t anywhere near the arena, as I strolled through playgrounds full of children and parents with concerned looks on their faces as I walked past with a huge bag on my back. Fortunately, this was a fairly nice community, but the fact that the sun was setting and that I had no idea where I was meant that the family atmosphere did little to calm my nervousness about the 2000 yuan sitting in my back pocket.
I get to the end of this community and reach a major road with no street signs and glance down at my cellphone – 7:00, still an hour before the game, but no idea where I am or where the arena is. I ask a guy standing on the side of the road for directions, using the old skate and “zai nar?” trick. He doesn’t seem to know where that is, but when I show him my map with the dot marking the arena’s location he motions for me to follow him.
We walk for about five minutes, he grabs my gear and throws in on his bicycle so that I don’t have to carry it and we cross paths with a guy with a moped who he seems to know. Some kind of transaction goes down, they swap bicycle for moped and he motions for me to get on…sure, why not.
We bike for about 10 minutes, holding on to my hockey gear with one arm and clinging on to my seat with the other, debating in my head whether I should subtly put on the helmet that’s in my bag, maybe the shoulder and elbow pads while I’m at it. We get to our stop, however, just fine. The guy drops me off at a place that is definitely a park, I thank him profusely and I begin wandering around the area outside the park that looks a fair bit like the crudely drawn map.
The problem is, after pacing up and down two city blocks for 30 minutes I don’t see a McDonalds or anything that looks like the driveway to the arena I thought I saw on the map. I decide to enter Xinglong Park and see what I could see from there.
To begin with, beautiful place, heavily wooded area with a nice lake in the middle, people sitting on benches and practising tai chi (completely guessing here, could’ve been yoga and I wouldn’t know the difference). I would’ve been just fine with spending my whole Sunday night there if I didn’t have 30lbs of hockey gear strapped to my back, but I digress.
After walking around the park for another half hour I suddenly hear the faint humming that could only be either an arena or a giant air conditioner coming from the other side of a hill. I take off through the trees and see it - the arena. By now, however, it’s completely dark out and all I see coming over the hill is the building. 20 feet later, I see the barbed-wire fence that surrounds it.
The fence runs a long way off into the woods and, walking through the mud at the base of it, I see no good coming from following it through until the end. I also can’t imagine trying to explain what I’m doing if cops catch me walking beside this fence in the middle of the woods, under darkness, looking for a way over.
I walk back over the hill and back to the path. 8pm, game’s starting. The path bends away from the arena and begins to loop back towards the area I came in. I find an exit out of the park and begin walking down another street, hoping just to make it to the game in time for the second and third periods. Another 20 minutes though and I give up, sit down on a curb with my gear and prepare to throw in the towel.
While sitting there, thinking of all the better ways I could’ve spend a Sunday night in Beijing, a nice lady approaches and asks me something, I do my song and dance with the skate, map and “zai nar?” And she motions for me to follow, she talks the whole way, I just smile and say the few words in Mandarin that I know “wo jiao Les,” (my name is Les, I may have repeated this more times than necessary just so she didn’t feel like she was talking to herself).
Another 20 minutes of walking and a big smile comes across her face as she points towards the entrance of the park. To be fair, she had the absolute best intentions in mind, so I had to thank her for leading me back to the park and I went in just to humour her.
8:40. I figure there’s no sense in trying to find the game now, might as well go for a wander around the park, enjoy it and blow off some frustration from the night that was. I hear a lot of music and cheering going on around a bend and as I approach I see a large group clapping session going on. Can’t quite explain what it was but everyone seemed to be having a good time just clapping and slapping their legs and arms to the music, pretty cool just to see.
I make my way around the group and get to a gate, walk out and see that fucking McDonalds. 8:55. I hold out my arm for a cab and immediately an unmarked car pulls over and the driver motions for me to come inside. Not tonight. Learned that lesson already. I waive him off, grab a real cab, head home and pass out 130 yuan and four hours later.