Xu Zechen

Hardly anyone was on the street, the few people he saw were closed up in their cars, passing through the windlike strange and lonely spirits. The supermarkets and corner stores were all closed, and Beijing’s lively nightlife had been canceled on account of the wind. He would have to find a 24-hour mart. He couldn’t for the life of him think of one nearby. He’d been in Beijing for two years and thought he knew Haidian like the back of his hand, but the moment the sun went down it was someplace else entirely. It didn’t mean squat to know a place in the daytime, that was just seeing. Now it was night, and Dunhuang’s eyes were veiled in darkness, darker than Beijing itself. He followed the street, the big pack on his back and a smaller bag in each hand, deciding he would follow the street until it brought him to a brightly-lit minimart.


He finally found it at one thirty in the morning, and bought two packs of Zhongnanhais. In a windless corner he quickly smoked six in a row, and afterwards felt cold, worn-out, and sleepy. It was two in the morning. Dunhuang started to think about finding a place for the night. Most of the hotels would already be closed, and he couldn’t think of any cheap ones nearby, anyway. He just needed a place to crash, anything would do, just a place where he could pay for a bunk. He thought it over, but his eyes were still masked by darkness. He felt like a failure. This was Beijing: you could spend your whole life kicking around the place and still not know what was right outside your door. Given that he didn’t know how much a night’s lodging would cost (only half a night, now), and given how little he had in his pocket, he decided to forget about finding a hotel. He’d just stay awake as long as he could–the sun had to come up eventually.

He wandered in fits and starts through the wind, the sand continually blowing into his mouth. 

Running Through Beijing

On a night like this, he’d have to pass the time in whatever strange manner he could. He looked at the wind in the trees, looked at the ground, the buildings, the signs, everything that presented itself to his gaze. He discovered that, as the wind blew the past the branches, ground, and buildings, it seemed to be torn to shreds, quite unlike the wind in his old village, which moved slowly over the fields like water. Beijing’s wind was black and cold, while the wind at home was light yellow and warm. He smoked and the taste mixed with the sand, leaving his mouth dry and numb. He walked slowly, and by three thirty he was as stiff and unfeeling as a piece of wood–a frozen board. His body seemed to be getting lighter, a grubby lightness. If it weren’t for the three bags weighing him down the wind would have blown him away. All he wanted now was a place to lie down, even just for five minutes. He’d wandered into an area he didn’t recognize at all. In front of him was a crudely–built breakfast hut slumped on the sidewalk in front of a shop entrance, its eaves unusually long. Dunhuang thought he might be able to lie down under those eaves.

The windows and doors of the hut were shut tight, and with the streetlights behind him it was hard to make out anything inside, but he had a general sense of its empty darkness. From the look of it, it had been abandoned for some time–otherwise it wouldn’t be leaning the way it did. Dunhuang pushed at the door and window but they were shut tight. He considered finding a brick and breaking the glass–at least he’d be out of the wind. This damned weather, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad if not for the wind. He couldn’t find a brick and was just about to use his elbow when a car turned a corner nearby, its headlights sweeping over the galvanized steel roll-door and the windows of the shop. The light reflected onto the breakfast hut, and Dunhuang saw a small hole in its window. He stuck a finger inside, found the latch, gave a tug, and the window opened.

Excerpt courtesy of Two Lines Press. Translation © 2014 by Eric Abrahamsen. Running Through Beijing is available for purchase here.

Background illustration by Marcela Gutiérrez