The heavy, acrid smoke wafted all around. The stench was steady and overpowering. There was no escape. Luckily for me, this scene was unfolding at an Internet cafe two blocks away from my Dongzhimen apartment in Beijing, where a far more sinister type of smoke surged upward from the basement of my ramshackle apartment building and straight into my sixth-floor flat.
"Are you okay?" asked my landlord breathlessly after my mobile phone chirped me to attention. "There was a fire in your building!"
I was panicked: there were my belongings, my passport, encrypted with a treasured Chinese visa, and—most importantly—my two roommates "They are alright," my landlord assured me. "But you might want to find someplace else to stay tonight."
I stumbled out into the night, my mouth already ablaze from some spicy noodles. Outside my place were two smallish fire engines and a police car. None of their occupants appeared particularly interested in what had just happened—or what could have just happened.
My roommates stood shivering outside, both visibly shaken but otherwise okay. Smoke, they said, swept apartment as they slept, prompting them to struggle to breathe out of their windows as best they could.
Their pleas for help to a police officer below were an exercise in negligence: He told them to stay inside.
Hysterically, the pair managed to fumble across a flashlight they used to unlock the door and navigate their way out.
The extent of the damage—not to mention the shock as to how lucky we all were —wasn't apparent until perhaps 30 minutes later, when the police and fire safety officials departed unceremoniously—without seriously checking as to see if anyone was hurt.
Accompanied by two neighbors, we ascended the stairs—with cell phones eerily lighting our paths—up the blackened stairwell to see what the fire had left in its wake. We all labored to breathe the suffocating air as we hiked up six floors.
Upon opening our charred door, my roommates threw their windows open and lit a pair of candles—both on the verge of tears.
My own moment of reckoning hit me after I opened the door of my room on the upper floor of our flat: A wall of noxious smoke almost knocked me to my feet as I attempted to step inside.
In addition to not being able to see a thing—after tripping over much of my clothes and furniture in the process—I also had to hold my breath to open my own windows.
Depressed and demoralized, I glanced at my hands and noticed they were quivering violently. It was time to go. I grabbed my money, a towel and a half-empty, despicable-tasting bottle of Chinese cabernet from our darkened refrigerator before staggering outside.
By then, within an hour of the fire's eruption, the street below was wholly deserted—save for three men in their twenties chatting and an older man pushing his wheelchair for exercise.
Resigned to my fate at 4:45 a.m., I sat on some steps and took some swigs of my potion before getting up walking to a nearby hostel.
It was there that I got yet another reminder that I live in China—as if I needed any.
Upon (trying to) check in, I offered the concierge a copy of my passport. She seemed perplexed, if not earnest. "Passport," she said. My soot-colored, shaking hands, and further efforts to elicit sympathy through a pocket dictionary, offered no respite.
"Passport, please," she repeated once more, before a man secreted in a blanket on a sofa on the other side of the lobby mumbled something unintelligible.
So it was that I turned on my heel and approached the cavernous recesses of my apartment, ever so reluctantly, once again.
It was 4:55 a.m.
Just then, the old man who had been pushing his wheelchair was making another round. He was the only person left. I could see but a bare hint of a smile on his weathered face as he nodded and said something I couldn't quite understand.
As he spoke, residual water flowed gently onto the street before me, blanketing my fast-graying sneakers. I smiled in return, took a deep breath and stepped back inside.
My cell battery was petering out—and I had some climbing to do.