How was Beijing? Well, absolutely like nothing I was expecting. I thought that after having lived in Taiwan and Malaysia and gone around Asia quite a bit I am immune to cultural shocks here. Obviously, I was very wrong.
When I reached Beijing, it was already quite some time past midnight so the public transport was long closed. Without having much of a choice, I just lined up to get a taxi. Warned by my best friend, who I was visiting, I was prepared – had the name of the place I wanted to reach written down in Chinese, as apparently taxi drivers are not fluent in English, or should I say, they do not speak it at all.
There I am, it’s 2 am in the morning, no internet as I couldn’t buy a SIM card, showing my driver the place where I want to go and the only thing he tells me is ’no’. I’m sorry what do you mean no? He looks at me, looks at the name of the place and bad picture of the map I took earlier and again says ‘no’. So we’re having this conversation, me talking English, him Chinese until I realise that he doesn’t know the place. Then I start pointing at the address and his phone trying to convey the message that he could Google (pardon, Baidu) it and take me where I want. Okay, ‘no’ is turns into ‘dui’ (yes).
This time round I did my homework and so I know that once in a taxi I need to make sure that my driver turns on the meter so that I don’t end up paying through the roof. Of course, I have long forgotten anything useful I learned when I was living in Taipei and the only way I can communicate is by miming. And this is exactly what I do, I lean to the front and point at the meter. Oh how much I was unaware how much anger this is going to trigger. My driver starts shouting in Chinese like crazy, probably treating me and my whole family to his most nasty swear words. But I am tough, I am not gonna sit still until he turns it on. And then, victory, I won, he turned the meter on. Awesome.
Forty minutes later, we reach my destination. Or at least this is what the map says. My driver drops me off and drives away immediately, tyres screeching, not really concerned with the fact that the place where he leaves me looks like there is nothing open around, not even mentioning a youth hostel. 3 am in the morning, great, what do I do now, do I sleep here on the street? I start asking random half-drunk people on the street showing them the name of the place I am looking for. One person after another just says ‘no’ and this is the only thing they say, then laugh and go away. After sixth one I get annoyed. Okay, two girls are coming, they have their phones in their hands, let’s try. Not surprised at all, they also give me this ‘no’ that I know so well already. But now I am tired and lost my patience, so the same as with my taxi driver, I start pointing at their phones and suggesting they just check it. I can see an ‘aha’ moment in their eyes. Maybe, I am saved. They look up the place and it’s exactly where we are standing. Finally they give me a number to the place and start walking away. Well, I cannot make calls in China, it turns out. I run after them, and apparently tired of this annoying girl who ruins their 3am walk home, they call the place. Someone picks up. Someone comes to pick me up. He only speaks Chinese, so there would be no use even if my phone was working.
Next day I wake up, go out on the streets and… I am amazed. The area where I am staying is just beautiful. One-storey, Chinese style brick houses, tons of extremely pretty small shops, street food shops that smell like heaven. Wow, this is not the Beijing I imagined.
What did I imagine? Concrete and glass, Hong Kong style tall sky scrapers, trash on the streets, smog in the air. Did I find any of these? Well, just a bit of smog but come on, my home town, Warsaw, has it as well. What I found though was an extremely clean city. For a European, it is looking as if someone spread an extremely pretty Chinatown over the whole city. No artificial modern architecture, just all the buildings in the typical Chinese style, everything fitting together architecturally, pleasing your eyes.
But that was not my cultural shock. The cultural shock came from Beijing’s people. Once you start walking around the city, you realise that it is extremely common to clear your throat and spit everywhere. You walk a bit more and realise that people around you just keep burping and farting as they go and it is absolutely normal and widespread. You find yourself queuing to enter the Forbidden City? There is a huge chance that this girl next to you just does *burp* *burp* *burp* very loud.
If like me, you’re a foreigner who only speaks ‘duo shao’ (how much) or ‘cesuo’ (toilet) and ‘wo shi bolan-ren’ (I am Polish), you might be up for a bit of a challenge. English is not spoken almost at all (unless you go to the Pearl Market – one of Beijing’s main shopping spots, known for haggling – everyone speaks perfect English there). If you’d like to buy tickets to the tourist attractions, you can do it easily online. Although it may turn out impossible once you figure out that only Chinese names are accepted. Wi-Fi is common, however most case scenario you have to register using your mobile phone. Oh, you don’t have Chinese phone..?
Whereas every Westerner at an arrival in China gets a VPN in order not to get disconnected from all the life-sustaining apps, Chinese people simply use only the government-approved applications. The main one would of course be WeChat. And what WeChat can do is just mind blowing. It is basically Facebook’s dream of internet domination that is never going to materialise. Of course, the app is for messaging, but it also plays a role of your Instagram, fitness tracker, wallet, Game Center, government services provider, tickets vending machine, you name it. Just amazing.
I would not be fair if I only gave this account of my trip to China. Because the country, although only seen from a perspective of a four day trip, amazed me.
As I mentioned, Beijing is like nothing I imagined. The city’s most famous landmark, the Forbidden City, brings you to your knees with its greatness. It is an absolutely enormous complex of halls and small palaces. The place that used to be home to Emperors, which no one could leave or enter without the Empreror’s approval is now teeming with hundreds of tourist. Just the scale of the premises can overwhelm you. And then, after the exit from the Forbidden City starts Jingshan Park, which offers a perfect view over the Forbidden City and Beijing itself.
A trip to China, and Beijing especially, would not have been complete without seeing one of the World’s Seven Wonders, the Great Wall of China. Before arriving, I was convinced that it is a place where you take a whole day stroll, probably with some small vendors offering water or beer on your way. Again, I was very wrong. Only small parts of the Wall, that have been restored are available for visitors. What my best friend taught me was that the way Chinese built it was by building two brick walls and then throwing earth, stones and wood in between. Therefore, the Wall in its original design is not necessarily suitable for tourists. Also, it is more of a hike than an easy stroll. But, as with every hike, once you get to the top, you know it was worth it. With a clear sky, you can see up to 15 towers stretching out into the green woods.
Our conquest of the Chinese Wall started and ended in Gubei, a small but gorgeous town that is known for its waterways going through the city and making it an extremely picturesque spot. It is a popular tourist destination and this is why there are plenty of attractions happening throughout the day. There are boat tours, Chinese theatre, water shows and a lantern show in the evening. Having seen Lantern Festival in Taipei, where hundreds of people gather in one village to set fire to the lanterns they have made and send it to the sky together with wishes, this lantern show again took me by surprise. It came out, that the lanterns were actually running on batteries rather than hot air. Because of that the lanterns can actually be arranged in different shapes in the sky, every time causing a sigh of awe from the audience on the ground.
Looking with hindsight, this trip was the one that took me most by surprise, but also taught me a lot. The country left me completely flabbergasted, it’s just the street culture part that I have to learn to accept.