People often ask if it’s difficult to travel alone in places where I neither speak nor read the language.
I honestly enjoy it, because it’s taught me two major things: knowing the language is not necessary for communication and most people are generally kind and helpful. I had yet another experience that reinforces these beliefs a few days ago. I arrived in Kunming, China, after the subway stopped running. The southern train station is very new, and very far from everything. I walked out to get a taxi, and the line was probably 300 meters long.
I decided to take a walk and let the crowd die down, but when I got back, it was still bad. There were cops milling around, and the one officer who spoke a little English approached me, took a look at my address, and told me to get on a bus nearby. He wasn’t able to tell me exactly where the bus was going, but he said, “centre” so I did as he advised.
The bus turned out to be just over $1 and dropped me very close to my hostel at about 1am, which is where things got fun. It became evident that the hostel was hidden somewhere in an apartment building. Indeed, Agoda listed many in the area, yet I saw no signs.
Being familiar with Chinese housing regulations, I figured the hostels must operate illegally, so I wandered around the entire block a couple of times, searching for some indication that hostels were hiding inside. It was close to 2am, but I wasn’t concerned because I passed loads of hotels along the way. I finally stopped and tried to show security guards the address at different points around the complex. The first guard didn’t know it. The second panicked when he saw a foreigner. The third, however, was a winner. He took my phone, got the number for the hostel, called, and walked me there. This interaction happened completely without speaking, with the exception of me thanking him. When we got there, the door to the apartment building was locked. He radioed and another guard came over and unlocked the doors, and they took me up to the floor. Still, I had yet to see a marking.
He knocked on a nondescript door and a guy in pyjamas opened it to reveal a full hostel hidden in the apartment tower. I thanked the guards profusely as they left. That’s when I hit another snag. I showed the guy my Agoda booking confirmation for two nights in a single room. He had no idea what Agoda was, nor did he speak English.
He managed, by online translator, to tell me that there were no single rooms. I took his phone and asked for a refund. He didn’t understand, so I showed him my bank statement where I paid, and the Agoda confirmation. He finally got on the phone with his boss and handed me a refund.
I asked if I could stay in the dorm, but I think he was tired of dealing with me, so he used the translator to tell me, “I’m not the boss,” apologised profusely, and walked me out. Money in hand, I figured I’d just find a cheap hotel in the area.
This is where I encountered another problem. It was Spring Festival, a major Chinese holiday, and all the hotels were full. Chinese tourists and I were wandering the streets, bouncing from hotel to hotel, and being turned away. I was very close to giving up because it was 3am.
A nice lady at one of the hotels gave me the wifi password, which I used to find the nearest McDonald’s (in China, it’s one of the few 24-hour businesses with wifi), where I figured I’d have a coffee, read, find a new hotel for the next day, and regroup.
Along the way, I passed one more hotel, which was nestled in a backstreet. The lobby was nicer than the others, and the quoted prices were high, but I inquired anyway. The one woman working who spoke a few words of English told me there was one room available, pulled out a calculator to show me I could have late checkout at 2pm, and she would give me the room for $26 US, a discounted rate.
I cannot emphasise how lucky I was, considering the number of wayward tourists wandering around the neighbourhood. I got to the room and it was huge and incredibly fancy for the price. It was exactly what I needed at 3am after a long day of travel. I walked over to McDonald’s to grab a bite to eat because it was the only place open, and the restaurant was full of poor travellers who didn’t get so lucky.
The biggest problem I have with not being able to speak the language is, how can I adequately thank someone for helping me out in such a great way?