I have always enjoyed travelling. That sublime mix of trepidation and excitement when one first steps off the plane in a foreign country is a feeling that is utterly unique and it has slowly become one that I crave above all others. However, it was not until my very first experience of the jungle we refer to as China, that I fully understood wanderlust.
I have always been a little dubious when confronted with people who like to express themselves using definitive statements and bold exclamations, it is all slightly melodramatic for my taste. Nonetheless, in this particular case, I do believe I am able to understand where these theatrical individuals are coming from.
Put simply, Beijing is the city that I fell in love with. I am aware that this proclamation sounds almost painfully trite and I am trying awfully hard to resist wincing at it’s cliché nature, yet frankly, it seems it is the only fitting description.
First, let me clarify what it is exactly I mean. I am most definitely not referring to love at first sight. In fact, I have become quite opposed to this sentiment entirely, to claim that you love a country before even experiencing it, is in my opinion, quite ignorant. I am referring to a much more gradual development of attachment. With each day that passed, each smile that I shared and each meal that I ate, my enamour grew. I’ve even begun to ponder the possibility that perhaps, just maybe, there is a place out there for everybody. Somewhere so inexplicably magical that you never want to come home, and for me, that spellbinding location, is China.
Just a few days into our trip, we decided it was necessary to embark on another little adventure, so with fans in hand and enough water to hydrate a small army, we set off for the Great Wall of China. Whilst there were numerous tours on offer and even transport available from our hotel, we opted for a slightly more authentic method, and I am so very thankful that we did. Sitting on a rickety bus, surrounded by thirty snoring Chinese men whizzing through the streets of Beijing, was an experience so surreal that I sometimes doubt my recollections.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by stalls selling fake Ray Ban sunglasses, a Subway and a donkey. Whilst clearly unconventional, I can honestly assure you that odd little things things only added to the charm. Following a cable car ride up to the top of the wall (during which there were moments when, I must admit, the threat of losing my lunch was fairly tangible) we had finally made it. It’s so difficult to capture the essence of such an iconic location in words and actually, this is a fairly fitting hurdle. From the moment I stepped onto the wall, I was utterly struck by the pure, uninterrupted silence stretching in almost every direction. The stillness, the air of serenity so foreign and unexpected that I experienced, remains one of the strangest and most tangible moments of my travels to date.
From there, things only got better. I sampled fried ice cream in the Olympic village and ate noodles in the depths of the Forbidden City, a place where whispers of history float by on the wind. At night, we danced with a group of smiling Chinese women on a tiny forgotten street and each morning, I was met with a bigger and brighter selection of creatures on every road I passed.
I stepped in the remnants of goodness knows what, was blinded by the flash of a tourist’s camera, deafened by the screeching and shouting of one scorpion vendor to another and left with nostrils burnt by the poignant smells of grilled dog on a stick.
Forget New York, Beijing is a concrete jungle like no other I have ever encountered, where sleek skyscrapers can coexist in beautiful harmony with minuscule temples, their existence only discovered by those few who catch a whiff of the incense in the air.
The contrasts continued as I passed businessmen on the subway rushing to their place of work, briefcases and coffee in hand, and later stumbled across a blind woman sweeping leaves, her child weeing on the street corner, barefoot and grinning.
With the humidity like a blanket, air conditioning slowly becomes a drug that you just can’t help but become addicted to, and my personal favourite dealer? 7/11. The blast of recycled air is such a relief that you will do almost anything to elongate the experience, including browsing the aisles of strange and wonderful foods, buying everything that looks cheap and tasty.
Imagine ants. Thousands and thousands of ants enclosed in a tiny matchbox. Each one is struggling to move, eager to continue on their paths and go about their business, but there is simply no space, there is no air. They push and they shove and they shout and they struggle, a teeming mess of bodies. This, is Tiananmen Square Station, but in this case, the ants in question are much, much louder.
This cannot be happening. The thought that crossed my mind as I felt my shoe slip between the platform and the floor of the subway train, disappearing onto the dark tracks below. Looking back, I probably should have realised that it was unlikely I was going to come across any pretty size seven shoes in a random Beijing underground station. Ah well, I’m sure that traipsing around a busy zoo in sweltering heat wearing a pair of men shoes didn’t draw too much attention to the British tourist.
Now, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. I am aware that this account is slightly untraditional in its layout. There’s no structure or ordered sequence of events, no illusion of logic or chronological exploration of description. But, what you must understand, is that’s the point.
Beijing is a city that simply refuses to conform to rationale and chooses instead to sidestep coherence with a wild and wonderful grace. It is, an imperfect utopia, where even faults have the ability to become the greatest of assets if considered by the right person, with the right attitude. In China, you have to be willing to, for lack of a better expression, go with the flow, because I can guarantee it will take you places you never even imagined existed.
So, armed with a tacky waving cat and enough photographs of myself imitating everyone’s favourite Karate Kid to last a lifetime, I returned home, the same cannot be said however, for my heart.