So in this instalment of ‘Things Christy did Over a Year Ago’, I will be relaying the tale of when I cast away the shackles of European society and headed east, into the sensuous Orient. It was all very exciting and I felt a bit like Marco Polo – or it would have been and I would have, had it not been for the 10 hour layover in Moscow airport, where I was forbidden to leave the building. A little less Marco, a little more Tom Hanks in The Terminal. Obviously I did what I imagine anyone being incarcerated against their will does, and immediately established myself as airport Kingpin by commandeering what appeared to be the only working electrical outlet in the building. And here I sat for hours, Kindle-ing and Facebook-ing and silently lording my prime airport real estate, over the Russian people, like a proud, moustachioed Tsar. My delusions of grandeur were shattered, however, when I had to get up to pee, or to refuel at T.G.I Friday’s, and found that no one cared to claim my precious outlet as their own.
After about 9 hours, I decided it was probably a good idea to find my boarding gate, so I stood up and looked around and found that it didn’t appear to exist. After some blank stares and miscommunications with airport staff, I ascertained that my gate was in an entirely different terminal that I didn’t know existed. So thus began another Home Alone-esque dash through the airport and into a whole other building, miles away. Time was as short as my, again, inappropriate for the occasion, shorts. My flip flops were torn off and I ran barefoot across the dusty granite floor, like an unreasonably well-nourished POW escapee. Despite the urgency of my airport sprint, the fact that this building was much nicer than the one I had been needlessly squatting in, was not lost on me. Subways, and Costa Coffees and vending machines that appeared to dispense tins of biscuits flashed by me whilst I lamented my stupidity in staying in the shameful Terminal D with its measly T.G.I Friday’s and its limited Duty Free. I arrived at the gate just in time for an anti-climactic queue to board. I discovered that I had ended up being on the Terminal D of flights when I ended up on quite a rickety plane, with indecipherable notices that appeared to tell me that I’m not allowed to bring boomboxes or cars on the plane, and what appeared to be a blatant disregard and expression of contempt towards my anticipative request for a vegetarian meal. This was all wrapped up nicely when the elderly Chinese man sitting next to me, felt the need to lean over my lap to look out the window every five minutes, and sit in my seat, put my earphones in and unpause my in-flight film, whilst I popped off to the bathroom. But, whatever. Only 8 hours until I reached Beijing.
I feel like my first authentic Chinese experience was on the subway that I caught from the airport. It was a bit like going through a carwash without a car: moist and constricting. There appeared to be more people in my subway car than there was at the last concert I was at. I debarked, gasping for air, only to find that in Beijing there isn’t any air. I found that I was standing directly in front of Tiananmen Square, except I was unable to see it through the smog. I looked around and saw that everyone who passed me was wearing surgical masks, and this seemed like a bad a sign. Several people were also wearing t-shirts with English logos that I presume the wearer didn’t understand. This is only an assumption though. The little girl I saw may well have been perfectly aware that her t-shirt said ‘Who’s Your Daddy?” Another thing I noticed was how Western the immediate area looked. It was a large built up area with loads of shops and fast food restaurants. It seemed to be a good location to have a hostel. As it turned out, my hostel appeared a few turns later, in a dark alleyway with crickets frying at the side of the dirt road and parents holding their defecating babies over potholes. I personally think I fitted in quite well – or as well as an oddly tall, ghostly pale Northern-Irish girl could in the backstreets of Beijing. In fact, that evening I ended up walking into what I thought was a restaurant, to find that I was the guest star of a nice Chinese family’s dinner party. They gave me what I can only describe as cold salt strips, which I attempted to eat with chopsticks (which I had never used before) and a pint-glass of miscellaneous black liquor. This was an impossible situation to get out of as I didn’t want to appear rude and because none of them spoke a word of English except for the six year old girl. Sadly she wasn’t the most conversationally stimulating of characters and mostly just asked me if I liked dogs.
A couple of day later, I decided to take a day trip to The Great Wall of China. I signed up for a 6 hour hike around what was described as an ancient part of the wall which hadn’t been renovated and had very few tourists. This turned out to be false advertisement and equated to a two hour dander around the main part of the wall. There were in fact no other tourists but this was only because it was a horrible rainy day and you couldn’t see any of the wall because of a thick screen of fog/smog. All of my pictures ended up being of the area two feet in front of me. I maybe should have bought a post card of my desired photo, where I could see the wall winding around idyllic countryside for miles, and tried to pass it off as my own. My tour group were obviously upset that we had been mislead about the contents of the tour, but every time we brought it up with the tour guide he would loudly start belting out what sounded like angry religious chants. It was either this, or some sort of technique designed to scare invading Mongols away. He wasn’t a bad singer. He was maybe on par with the performers of the Peking Opera that I went to see the next night, whose costumes and high-pitched singing actually proved to be wildly entertaining. I had no idea what was going on but I think I was, much to my surprise, laughing with them and not at them.
A highlight of Beijing for me was my trip to The Forbidden City. This is probably because a great deal of my knowledge of China beforehand had come from Disney’s Mulan and I was excited to see some talking dragons. The Forbidden City lays North of Tiananmen Square, which I was excited to see for its historical and cultural significance. It was obviously an essential tourist destination, but I spent little time there as it was sort of a one photo and then I’ve seen it all kind of a deal. I was also really anxious to get to The Forbidden City. There was just so much to take in, and accompanied by an audio-guide, I spent an entire day walking around the grounds and learning things I didn’t even know I would find interesting about China’s past dynasties. I loved the names of all the different parts of the city, for example The Gate of Heavenly Purity or The Hall of Supreme Harmony. I especially loved the pillars and the statues, throughout the palace, that have luckily survived Manchu, Japanese and Communist invasions. Even some of the former treasure is displayed in the Treasure Gallery part of the Palace Museum, having been smuggled out during the Second World War and returned after. My favourite part of the city was the Imperial Garden. It seemed like a scene out of an Ang Lee film, and was only slightly spoiled by the three billion tourists packed into it. The day definitely left a lasting impression and even sparked an interest in concubine culture that I still enjoy reading about.
The history nerd in me loved The Forbidden City, but it was the animal lover in me that drove me to Beijing Zoo. There was no way I was going to go all the way to China and not see a panda. That would be insane. Despite this overwhelming urge to see a panda, I was also very nervous about what kind of conditions the animals would be living in. They turned out to be better than what I was expecting but not up to a great standard. The panda house seemed to be the most relatively spacious and well-maintained, which isn’t surprising since it is their main attraction and costs an extra 5 RMB to see. The pandas were obviously extremely adorable but I was just as excited to see some rhinos and hippos, which they don’t have at Belfast zoo. I also saw a racoon! I wasn’t sure they even really existed outside American cartoons. That was probably a highlight of my life. The zoo itself was massive and I even got lost in it and seemingly found my way to the ‘rough’ part of the zoo where there were questionable looking characters selling corn on the cob by the path and signs forbidding people from ‘pole vaulting’. Maybe this was a problem within the zoo and they were constantly getting people vaulting into the cages and escaping on a tiger.
Overall, despite the crazy cultural differences, and some of my feelings about the rest of China that I visited afterwards, Beijing remains a city that I would visit again. I’ll maybe come more prepared next time, with a gas mask and a stick for enforcing personal space.