My Turkish Delight

Out of all the little pleasures and treats that Istanbul has to offer, one of my personal favourites is a visit to a hamam. After finishing my last job, I needed to cleanse my mental palate before starting at the new place and what better way to clear your mind than by going through a ritual of purifying your body?

The Turkish bathhouses, or hamams, are gender-segregated buildings, usually next to a mosque,where members of the public come for a deep cleanse and relaxation. I had visited this local equivalent of a spa for the first time a few years ago and it has become a must-have experience while in Istanbul. So when my friend Ayşegül asked me what I wanted to do during my short visit to Turkey, I exclaimed without hesitation : Let’s go to a hamam!

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Around midday we arrived at Çinili Hamam in Üsküdar district, on the Asian coast of Istanbul. We entered through a conspicuous looking door on the side of an old building. Dating back to 1640, Çinili Hamam has maintained a lot of its historical charm till today.

Upon arrival at a square hall covered in blue tiles which gave the place its name ( “Çinili” is a special type of blue porcelain used in the decoration of royal buildings ), we climbed a spiral staircase which took us to the changing rooms. We opened the rickety yellow wooden door to our cabin, undressed and walked downstairs wrapped  in thin material of pestemal, a special towel used in hamams.

Equipped with bars of natural herbal soap, kessa  glove for body’s exfoliation and hamam bowls, we passed through the arabesque shaped entrance into the main area of the hamam. Sicaklik,known also as haratet, was a large marble room with soft natural light coming through the tiny eyelets in the dome of the ceiling. The warm air was full of steam and filled with the sound of splashing water and a delicate hint of soapy cleanliness.

We entered one of the smaller naves  and sat down on the side of a marble basin. Dipping the shallow bowls into the hot and cold streams coming from the taps, we let the warm water wash the outside world off of us.  With every drop I was beginning to feel lighter, as if by purifying my body I was removing the weight of my previous life. The quiet atmosphere helped to relax the mind while the pleasant heat of the room put our tired frames at ease. I looked around. In the neighbouring niches, women of all shapes and sizes soaked in the serene atmosphere of this almost mystical place. It was a woman’s world, a place where we could be ourselves, without shame or anyone’s judgement. There was something refreshing about being surrounded by this pure female energy. I hadn’t realised it before, but due to stress and general busyness, I have neglected that part of my psyche in the recent months, I have traded connections and rituals for time-management and project deadlines and my soul was yearning to get its spirituality back.

Once the cold bitterness of the winter gave place to the comforting heat of the steam and the skin softened under the gentle caresses of water, it was time to move onto the Göbek tasi (marble stone raised in the centre of the  hamam).  Lying on the warm stone  I enjoyed the pleasant heat slowly spreading through my body while waiting for the masseuse. Natir thoroughly washed my body with the water and soap, scrubbing vigorously every inch of my body, leaving me feeling relaxed and renewed. It was as if with every stroke of the kessa glove, she was rubbing off a part of my old life.

Leaving the Hamam, I felt restored and reborn. As we drove back by the peaceful banks of  Bosphorus I  reflected on the importance of rituals in our life. How important it is to give ourselves a little treat, time to renew physically and mentally, to slow down and just be present, listen to what the body tries to tell us. In the chaos of my everyday life, I forgot about myself. I put everyone’s needs ahead of mine, prioritising work over my well-being. With the new job however, I was determined not to fall into this trap again. It was a truly new beginning and a chance to do things differently this time around.

A visit to hamam was a rare treat for me, something associated with significant life transitions, yet to my friend, it was part of everyday life, an element of her cultural landscape. Perhaps it was time for me to create space for rituals in my life, to make time for myself and get in touch with my body and soul? I promised myself to make every day special by slowing down and allowing some me-time, to look after myself and recreate that wonderful hamam feeling each day. For life is what’s happening now, not some day next week or next month and it deserves to be celebrated today and every single day.

My Istanbul

Instead of my usual alarm, I was awoken by the joyous laughter of seagulls welcoming a new day. The room was filled with gentle morning light, filtered through the curtains making a hazy attempt at protecting me from the nosy gazes of neighbours living in the apartment building opposite. I sometimes wondered if it was possible to really get any privacy in Istanbul between the narrow streets of its busy neighbourhoods and friendly people filled with curiosity.

Istanbul has always been a very special place for me. Ever since I visited this chaotically beautiful city on the cusp of Europe and Asia in my teens, I couldn’t get it out of my soul. It was the first “real” place I have travelled to on my own –  an excited 16 year old with a head full of dreams of adventure on her way to meet a friend she had met two years earlier in England. Istanbul was my introduction to a brave new world. I still remember that first day I heard the ezan, the melodic voice of the muezzin calling everyone for prayer blending with the sounds of ships passing the busy waters of the Bosphorus. To my young heart yearning for a bigger life, this was the most beautiful sound in the world.

Istanbul was a place where I  visited bohemian cafes and had meaningful conversations about life over cappuccino flavoured nargile smoke, where I drank litres of strong tea from tiny tulip-shaped glasses while looking at the turquoise water in front of me and mosques dotting the horizon. It was the world where I felt loved, inspired and free. It was the world my dear friend Aysegul lived in, my favourite place to come back to.

Over the years I kept on visiting Ayşegül and Istanbul, watching both of them change. To me the city and my friend used to be one and the same thing – different from anything I had known before, familiar yet full of surprises, artistic and hungry for life. With time however, both of them started to go different ways. With each year Istanbul seemed to be turning its head towards the past, a change towards which  Ayşegül started becoming increasingly resistant. The more women in headscarves populated the streets, the more rebellious my friend would become, leaving me with a vague feeling that he city was being taken away from her. On one hand there was the liberal bohemian lifestyle I have  grown to associate with my friend, which still seemed to be in a full swing in the tiny atmospheric cafes of Karaköy and cute, cat-filled restaurants of Üsküdar . On the other side however, there were pictures of Erdogan somberly scrutinising the passersby hurrying from the ferries to packed dolmuş taking them home, checking if they are pious enough.  I could feel the growing tension between the young and the old, the modern and the tradition, the liberal and religious. Istanbul was changing and neither Ayşegül nor I liked the direction in which the city we loved was heading. But it wasn’t up to us to stop the journey it was on and we had to accept that it was time for Ayşegül to go her own way.

As my friend was moving to Canada, my latest visit to Istanbul was threatening to be a truly last one. I will miss the free spirited young people filling the independent cafes of the Asian side of the city, the sellers of the sesame encrusted simit moving gracefully between the cars trapped in Istanbul’s unyielding traffic. I was going to miss the warming bitterness of Turkish coffee and the hours of playing the game of tavla. I would miss the rough aquamarine beauty of the Bosphorus,  but most of all, I would miss my Ayşegül , our laughter on the streets of Istanbul forever intertwined with the seagulls screaming about their freedom. Because no matter where we would be, regardless of where the city was heading, we would always have our Istanbul.

 

 

Warsaw – Christmas in January

There’s something really important in reconnecting with the place you’re from. A place where everyone speaks your language, where your surname is correctly pronounced, where all the smells and sounds are familiar. That is what Poland is to me – that cosy mix of familiarity.

As probably anyone who lives abroad, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with my country. I fondly  hold on  to traditions my friends back home see as outdated, I cherish the local food and find myself in awe of the little things my compatriots take for granted. It doesn’t mean I never see its flaws, on the contrary, I am very aware of my country’s limitations, but when you’re away from your land you can be more forgiving. Yes, people can sometimes be rude when you go to a Polish bank or a shop, yes they will share their opinions on your life whether you asked for them or not. But it’s the rudeness and nosiness that you’re familiar with, that you understand and anticipate and what used to annoy the hell out of you suddenly becomes a part of your culture, something you are trying to understand rather than judge. Because home is home, no matter how great or poor its interior design might be to others.

Having a two week break from work, I decided to recharge my soul in Warsaw. My actual home is Gdynia, a beautiful sea side town up north, but I felt that what I needed at this point in time was a home away from home. I wanted something familiar and easy, relaxing yet different enough to satisfy that wanderlust craving of mine. Warsaw seemed like the perfect choice –  a city I know a little, where my friends live, but where for the first time I would be getting in the middle of the week instead of on the weekend and where as a result I would have to get around on my own while everyone I knew was at work. And so I got the ticket and went.

Flying with Wizzair I arrived at Modlin, which is to Warsaw what Luton is to London- a small airport on the city’s outskirts operating mostly budget airlines. The moment I stepped out of the plane Poland welcomed me in its capital with snow.  The forest surrounding the airport was becoming whiter with every passing minute, snow turning the world into an unexpected winter wonderland.

The feeling of belated Christmas became even stronger once I finally arrived at Warsaw’s Old Town (having taken a connecting bus and a train from Modlin to Warszawa Gdanska, for approximately 4.50 GBP). After walking from the Ratursz Arsenal underground station down the Dluga street I kept on admiring the colourful tenement houses nibbled by time. The cobble stone alleys next to Warsaw Barbican were tethered with snow and the warm light of the street lamps gave the area a serene feel.

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Passing the cosy cafes tempting me with their warmth and delicious scent of coffee and cinammon, I got to the Rynek, the main square of the old town. The space around the iconic statue of Warsaw’s marmaid had been turned into an ice rink surrounded by wooden huts selling mulled wine, hot chocolate and polish sausages. I felt like I travelled in time and was given yet another Christmas.

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The Christmasy feel intensified further as I entered Bazyliszek, a traditional polish restaurant where I was meeting my friend Marcin.  In the wooden interior decorated with brunches of pine tree and candles, I simply had to order barszcz, polish beetroot soup with dumplings, which reminded me of the delicious crimson hotness served each year on my family’s Christmas table.

After the delectable feast for the body and soul, Marcin and I decided the continue our catch up over a hot cup of tea in nearby Same Fusy. This tea house has always had a very special place in my heart ever since I travelled to Warsaw for the first time as a teenager and I had spent hours discussing life in this enchanting tea house. The owners of the place captured its essence perfectly when they described the it with the following words: “The floating aromas of freshly brewed teas, music of the world, make the time slow down, for as all tea lovers know, she doesn’t like rush and chaos”. Until this day, I find something magical among the brick walls of this cosy space. It is a place where my soul recharges, where conversations become more real and connections deeper.

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Walking through the snowy streets of Warsaw’s old town I couldn’t help but feel charmed. This was the Poland I needed. The Poland I missed. By the time we got to the Castle square with its brightly decorated Christmas tree, I decided that the universe was giving me a present- another Christmas. I would spend the following two days doing exactly what I would have over the festive period- enjoying food and hot drinks, catching up on reading and spending time with people I love.

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And that’s exactly what I did.  I spent each lunchtime and evening with friends or family in Warsaw, enjoying the company of wonderful people I don’t get to see enough of. While everyone was working, I just spent my days enjoying Warsaw.

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The first full day I had in the capital turned out to be the most relaxing day I’ve had in a while. Aside from breakfast, lunch and dinner with my favourite people, I just spent my day relaxing in Warsaw’s cosy cafes. I started off with breakfast in the Green Cafe Nero (which luckily doesn’t have much to do with the all-same coffee chain in England) on Nowy Swiat, a central shopping street leading to the Old Town. I then moved to the Wrzenie Swiata, where I enjoyed browsing through documentary books this place is known for before settling with one of them in a big yellow armchair by the heater while enjoying hot tea with oranges and cloves.After having pierogi for lunch with one of my friends I made my way to Telimena, which proudly announces itself at the entrance as the oldest cafe in Warsaw. The building, like most in Warsaw’s old town have an interesting history and has hosted many great Polish artists like the composer Fryderyk Chopin. There is something about the cafes in Poland that nurtures the soul and encourages reflection. It is something I miss deeply in London, as I pass by yet another Starbucks or cold minimalist interiors of the hipster cafes. In Warsaw the coffee and tea feel like love in a cup, the sofas and armchairs hug you, and the warm atmosphere makes people open up their souls.

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During my short stay in Warsaw I abandoned the busy sightseeing schedule to follow my heart rather than head. I had been doing too much of what my head deemed necessary, neglecting the needs of my soul and it was time to reverse the order and give my spirit a break it so badly needed. As I entered yet another cafe, To Lubie, back by the Barbican and sat in a little reading nook by the windowsill, sipping tick and sweet amaretto flavoured hot chocolate, I felt that this is what life should be like. Unhurried, mindful, full of delicious drinks and inspiring books and conversations. Life filled with real people having real connection,  eating real food in real places. I found my Polish hygge and I couldn’t have been happier.

 

Singapore -a ticket to good life

Travel is often associated with trouble. You have to apply for visa, figure out how to move around the new country, struggle with communication and understanding the new reality. From the moment you arrive until the departure, your senses are heightened in readiness to help you deal with yet another confusion. Everywhere but in Singapore.

From the moment I landed at Singapore’s Changi airport everything become easy. The usual chaos surrounding arrival in a foreign country here gives way to simplified order. Before I knew it I had transferred from the plane to the passport control, which I had left even quicker. No queue, no visa required. Within a space of mere minutes I was free to explore this tiny island-country.

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For 30 Singaporean dollars (approximately 13 GBP) I took the taxi from the airport to Amara hotel in the city centre. Twenty minutes later I was already checking in, hotel receptionist making no issue of my early arrival. Encouraged by how swiftly everything was going, I decided to try to see as much as possible during this short business trip.

Thanks to its petite size, Singapore is easy to explore on foot. After just a short walk from the hotel I was already wandering through the fragrant streets of Chinatown, where I decided to visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.

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I spent over an hour wandering through the Buddhist complex and museum, admiring impressive sculptures, breathtaking halls and learning about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama. Although I enjoyed all of the levels of the complex, my favourite was the Roof Garden. At the top floor of the building, surrounded by lush green trees and beautiful orchids, in a Ten Thousand Buddhas Pavillion stood the Vaironcana Buddha Prayer Wheel. Turning its bright red, gold and green cylindrical surface clockwise helps to focus the mind on mantra recitation and according to Buddhist beliefs supports gathering of the good karma and purifies negative energy. After your mind has been cleansed, you can make your way to the basement of the Temple to nourish your body with some affordable vegetarian dishes in the devotees’ canteen.

I must admit that the visit to the religious complex turned out to be far from what I had expected. I knew Singapore was a modern city with many traditional accents of its multicultural heritage, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how traditional and modern a place can be at the same time. Right next to the historic houses and commercial establishments taking you back in time shine the glass and metal surfaces of the city’s skyscrapers.

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You can see the businessmen and women of the financial district lunching in the elegant and trendy restaurants serving European food just as much as sitting outside enjoying a bowl of traditional noodles.

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I felt that despite its petite size, everyone will find their own space in Singapore.

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Another striking feature of this city-state is its ever-present nature.

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Thanks to its proximity to the equator, Singapore can boast tropical climate throughout the entire year. This, combined with the country’s ecological concerns, makes Singapore the greenest and most beautiful metropolis I have ever seen.

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The lush greenery surrounding the financial district provides a feeling of calm and balance, supporting the sense of well-being and a healthy perspective to the usual rush of the working life. It is not uncommon to see whole buildings covered with plants or having roof top gardens. From the venue where I delivered client work I even saw a skyscraper where each balcony featured a small garden with palm trees. Technology and progress embracing nature – this is how every modern city should be.

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Thanks to its small size and inexpensive public transport and taxis, within 15 minutes from the moment of leaving the office you can find yourself in a rain forest. The abundance of tropical shrubs in the Botanical Garden was exactly what I needed to relax after a full day at work. While my colleagues in London were entering crowded tube, I was breathing fresh air and enjoying a walk in nature, silence broken only with the soothing melodies of the bird songs.  Now this is what the work-life balance should be.

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Another example of what I loved about Singapore is its diversity. I first noticed that when I was enjoying the traditional breakfast and overheard a conversation between a blond German who was enjoying his meal in the presence of his Sikh friend when they run into a few East Asian men who were asking if they will be joining them for basketball later. This seemingly insignificant encounter prompted me to see just how typical the scene was. Everywhere I have gone, I had the impression of people from all walks of life and religion coexisting peacefully next to each other. Busses driving underneath the Christmas decorations adorning the streets displayed “Happy Deepavali” interchangeably with the destination of their travel. Nobody seemed surprised to see a mosque right next to a Hindu temple just meters away from Chinatown. In Singapore this diversity was completely normal and I couldn’t help but dream of a world where such religious and ethnic eclecticism is a norm.

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Aside from Singapore’s openness to its multicultural society, this Asian country seems to be a perfect place for foreigners. Visitors and expatriates alike can easy communicate with everyone as Singaporeans tend to speak fluent English, Tamil, Malay and Mandarin. My UK credit card worked without everywhere without any problems (although I enoyed withdrawing cash from the cash machine more than card payment as the screen displayed an inspiring quote each time I waited for the money withdrawal) and I found moving around the island extremely easy. What I found unusual here though was the attitude I sensed towards me as a white tourist, so different to many places I have visited in the past. In many countries with strong expat communities, there is often a divide between the locals and the foreigners, the latter living in a bubble, removed from the local life. In Singapore I felt that all walks of life are more intertwined than in any other country I had seen. It might have been Singaporeans’ politeness, but whenever I have spoken to anyone who had been born there, they all seemed puzzled at my questions regarding the expat community and potential trouble their presence could be causing them. “It has always been like this. My parents saw foreigners coming to this country as did my grandparents. Singapore has always been what it is today, so we don’t have anything else to compare it to” assured me one of the local taxi drivers. The visit to the museum of Singapore’s history seemed to confirm that attitude. Due to its location, Singapore developed into a thriving international business hub centuries ago and the first written accounts of its existence suggest that it was already a melting pot of various cultures back then. It is thanks to its history then and minimal (in comparison to other Asian countries) imperialist influence, that Singaporeans appear to see themselves as equal to the foreigners, not better, not worse, simply equal. The pessimist in me is sure that some instances of racism or inequality must still be present here, despite its outwardly feel of complete tolerance, however the comparison to other countries makes me believe that even if not perfect, it is Singapore that we could learn a lesson or two on peaceful coexistence.

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Thanks to its good weather, great outdoor spaces, short distances and various museums and attractions, Singapore appears to be a very family friendly place. From picnics in the nature, through interactive light installations designed for children to enjoy, to beach family festivals on the weekends,  the country seems to have something not just for the single professionals and tourists, but also for families.

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The general feeling of safety, unhurried effectiveness and general kindness  made me feel like Singapore was exactly the place I needed to visit to remind me that a city like this can exist. Perhaps we don’t have to choose between family and career, technology and nature, future and past. Perhaps we can have it all. We just need to buy a one way ticket to Singapore.

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Make time for what really matters

Aerial view of tropical beach, Dominican Republic, Punta Cana

First of January always proves to be a magical time for me. According to an Italian proverb – Anno Nuovo, vita nuova (new year, new life), as someone recently reminded me when I told them about changes to my career. New year always brings me hope, that this year will be better than the last, that this year I will be better.  That finally I will create the habits that will support the resolutions I have set for myself.

It was with that hope that on the first of January I was writing down my new year’s resolutions connected with travel. I felt that over the last year I somewhat I slightly failed my dream. True, I managed to visit four new countries and went to some amazing places, but I felt disappointed with my writing routine (or lack of thereof) and in general had the impression that I should have been doing much more to carve wider space for travel in my everyday life. I decided it was the last time I finish the year with that feeling and that 2018 will see me embracing travel to the level it deserves. In order to help myself achieve those goals I decided on the following resolutions:

  1. Write a new post at least once a week

I designated Saturday mornings as my travel-writing time and will be ensuring that it is my priority. I had many moments of self-doubt last year, wondering whether having this blog makes sense and I often felt discouraged seeing that I wasn’t getting as many readers as I wish I had, but I decided that I started this blog for myself and should carry on writing not for the outcomes but for the pleasure of writing and a chance to relive the memories of the places I visited. I just need to do it more often, to stay on top of everything and capture as much as possible before my memory starts to fade.

  1. Do something every week to promote my blog

Having said all that about remembering my reasons for writing, I still decided that this year I want to be brave and shout more about my blog. Writing about your experiences and opinions can often leave you feeling quite exposed and it might be tempting to keep your posts hidden from the critical eyes of others. But perhaps promoting what I create is something I need to do as part of working on my self-confidence. And who knows, perhaps one of my posts can help someone to plan their trip or to see some place in a different light? So each week I will tell someone new about my blog, mention it in groups that have travel interest and be on the constant look out for ways to promote it. As part of having the courage to expose myself to criticism, I will also send an article to a travel magazine to see if they would be interested in publishing it (one of my greatest dreams!). I am also hoping to run at least one travel workshop in London. I have run some successfully in Poland already, but would like to do more of it this year and translating it into English and running it here, might be easier than waiting until I’m again in Poland.

  1. Learn photography

Part of the reason I have never tried to send articles to magazines and haven’t done as much in the blog promotion department was my conviction that my photos are simply not good enough. I have never learnt photography in any form and just ended taking photos when I was away, documenting what I saw. Looking at the photos upon return however, I always wished I knew more about photography, so that I could capture at least a glimpse of the beauty I was witnessing. This is why this year I promised myself I will finally learn about the shutter speeds and ISO, and try to hone my photography skills.

  1. Read at least one travel book and magazine each month

I have a stack of unread issues of my favourite travel magazines waiting to be picked up. Just like a number of travel books, they have been gathering dust, while I have been busy reading everything else (out of 102 books I read last year perhaps 5 were travel literature!). I have been postponing opening them up out of fear that they would wake up my well tucked-in feeling of guilt at not creating enough space for travel in my life. This is how I had created a vicious circle that I now decided to break. To keep my wanderlust intact, I will read at least one travel book each month and one of the travel magazines. This will help to declutter the magazine area, in line with my newly found minimalist tendencies, but it will also help me to finally create a travel binder I always dreamt of having. Over the years I have been writing down little tips and information on various countries I have been meaning to visit, but as they were dispersed across various notebooks and lose papers, I would usually end up losing them before I had a chance to incorporate them into my travel plans. This year, I will finally create a binder allowing me to store all the information (notes and articles) in one place, so that when the time to visit particular country finally comes, I will know what to see and how to get there.

  1. Visit five new countries in 2018

While I love returning to my favourite places (see you very soon Istanbul!), there is no better feeling than discovering a new country. Wandering through the unknown streets, tasting foreign food and having soul filled with a childish sense of wonder are among the best moments in life. So this year, I vow to step my foot in five countries I have never visited. Instead of things, this year I will be buying plane tickets.

                                                      What are your travel resolutions?

Minimalist travel

Summer vacation things neatly organised

After years of traveling around the world, I was very familiar with the airport routine and the long waiting times that seemed inevitable. I wasted what felt like years of my life standing in the queues to check in my luggage, only to await with dread whether my suitcase will appear on the baggage carousel. Unfortunately, there were times it did not.

When I was packing for my three-week long trip to Asia in the summer of 2017, I decided I am done wasting my precious time. It was time to apply my newly found minimalism to the final area of my life – travel.

Having simplified my wardrobe, packing has become surprisingly easy! I managed to fit all my clothes into a hand luggage, which proved indispensable as my husband and I travelled to a different city in China, Japan and South Korea every other day of our Asian adventure.

Small luggage also meant that I had to consciously choose what souvenirs to bring back from our travels. In the past, I used to bring a large number of cheap knick knacks “to remember the place by”. Over the years I learnt however that it’s the memories that matter, not these “travel trophies”.

Traveling light started as an exercise in minimalism but proved to teach me some important lessons. Here’s some of my tips on how to travel minimalist style:

  1. Try something new

One of the greatest joys of travel is that it allows us to break away from our everyday life and experience a reality different to what we know from home. Many people find change unsettling and try to recreate as much of their home environment and habits as possible – even if they don’t do so consciously. Traveling with sole necessities forces us to alter our routines and be comfortable with discomfort. It encourages us to be creative and to simplify, reminding us that we actually need much less than we think. It is also a great way to step out of your comfort zone and speak to the locals and practice that Spanish or French you’ve been learning at school while you’re forced to look for the sunscreen you never packed. You will be surprised what you can learn about the place you’re visiting as well as about yourself this way.

  1. Embrace the freedom

One of the great appeals of traveling is the freedom it gives us. Leaving our busy schedules behind we can truly embrace the time we have and allocate it any way we wish to. We can read the books we haven’t had time to open, we can wander aimlessly through the charming little streets of the city we’re visiting or get lost in the awe of nature we’re exploring. Every day, we are completely free to choose what to do with the 24 hours we are given. Why waste this time on packing and queueing at the airports? The less stuff you carry, the more freedom you have. Embrace it.

  1. It’s the memories that count

The less stuff we have, the more money we are left with for what really matters in life. I used to often end up paying more for the plane ticket, just so I can take a checked luggage. A number of times I even had to pay for the things I had already paid for at the time of their purchase, just so I can take my overweight bags home with me. People often worry that if they don’t bring souvenirs from their trips they won’t have any “proof” of their travels. Others are concerned that they cannot go back to their friends and family empty handed, without a token from their journey. I used to fall prey to these fears too, returning home with piles of cheap mementos that soon gathered dust instead of bringing back memories from the trip. Instead, I now limited the number of things I can bring back from my trip to one essential item that can have a practical use. For example, from my trip to Japan I brought only matcha green tea, which flavour reminds me of all the relaxed mornings my husband and I shared in that beautiful country. The less money I spend on stuff, the more money I have to travel, and to me those memories are more precious than anything I could display on a mantelpiece.

  1. Be present

The less stuff you carry around, the less you need to worry about them getting lost or stolen. Traveling with just a bag that you can see at all times, allows you to keep an eye on your belongings quite effortlessly. It gives us a chance to focus on experiencing the moment instead of worrying what will happen if our things get stolen. Rather than relaxing on holidays, I used to keep a watchful eye on my bags and stress whether I managed to pack everything when checking out of hotels and hostels. Now that the items I travel with are less numerous, I find packing much easier and less stressful. At the same time I get to focus on the experiences, be really present, without the worry spoiling my time.

  1. Leave your baggage at home

Many of us travel to get a break from our reality. Away from stress of work deadlines and boring routines, we can reconnect with ourselves and get some new perspective. Often just a short break or just the physical space can help us see a situation or a problem in a different light. The more stuff you carry with you, the more ties you down to the life you’ve been trying to get a break from. We like to hold on to our thoughts and beliefs just as we hold on to our belongings. The moment you leave what’s known behind, the more space you can create for the new and unknown. So leave your physical and mental baggage at home and travel light. Inside and out.

 

Jetlag? No thank you

Tired faces. Midday naps. Complaining.

Jetlag has always been something I have only heard about, but never experienced myself. For years of long-haul travel I kept on wondering what it feels like. I have gone to Australia and slept like a baby at the appropriate times. I went to Mexico and nothing happened – I proudly boasted to the jet-lag sufferers. But everything changed when I went to China, where my doubts about jetlag were finally dispelled, giving way to a horrible confusion and days of tears at my body’s failure to rest.

Traveling to Singapore, I was scared that this recent horror may repeat itself. If I found the experience so abhorrent while on holidays, how awful would it be if it happened on a business trip? I was in Singapore for less than 72 hours, out of which I had a full day of team facilitation ahead of me. I really couldn’t afford a jetlag. I decided to do everything in my power to avoid it.

1.Break the journey

I started working on my “no-jetlag” masterplan early. When booking tickets to Singapore, I decided to go through Dubai to break the trip. As someone who is scared of flying and verges on claustrophobia, not taking a direct, 13-hour flight was a no brainer. I also knew it would lower the cost of trip for my client, as the indirect flights are often cheaper than uninterrupted ones. With only a short stop-over in the UAE, the overall time of my journey increased by less than two hours in total, and I traveled more relaxed. By having a break, I was allowing my body to readjust half-way through, thus hoping to minimise the impact of the time change.

2. Arrive in the morning 

Looking back at my previous, jetlag-less trips, I noted that what they had in common was that most of the time I would travel at night and arrive at my destination before dusk. Reading about ways to prevent jetlag, I found the same advice. I therefore tried to schedule my travel in a way that would allow me to arrive early on Thursday, ahead of my Friday client work.

Exhaustion brought on by a long flight and my failed attempts to sleep on the uncomfortable seats of the economy class, gave way to the wanderlust as soon as I left the Changi airport. It was a Thursday morning and my taxi was swiflty advancing through the spacious lanes of East Coast Road. On one hand, I was in a modern, well-functioning metropoly. On the other, the humidity and heat, silvering thick leaves of stout palm trees adorning the road and the lush, tropical greenery reminded me I was in a different world.

I remember the sweet agitation of traveler’s excitement taking over. I was in Singapore for work, I was on a business trip, and yet to my left I was passing one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen.  Beyond the fresh, grassy grounds of the East Coast Park, from behind a row of tall, slender palm trees swaying their crowns gently to the morning breeze, a turquise water of the Singapore Strait emerged magesticaly. On the horizon, a hazy line of cargo  ships, stationed steadily on the calm blue surface- like the perpetual element of the Singapore’s landscape, reminding me of the city’s cosmopolitan past. There’s a very special kind of magic in port towns. The thrill of possibilities, the openness to novelty, the curiosity wrapped in the smell of clover and cinnamon. I couldn’t wait to go and explore.

3. Exercise

As soon as I checked into the Amara hotel on Malay-sounding Tg Pagar Road, I exchanged the warn travel clothes for a swimming suit and run to the swimming pool.

IMG_1263 The cold water provided a nice refreshment to the syrupy heat that enveloped me as soon as I stepped out onto the hotel terrace. It was only 10 am, so I decided to exercise before I ventured to explore the island. In every article I read, physical activity was one of the key recommendations to avoid jetlag. I have been stending up and moving regularly throughout my flights, to encourage the circulation, finding out that the end of the plane is spacious enough for doing lounges and sit ups. “Who cares what people think? They’re not going to be there in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep” I reminded myself whenever self-consciousness hit. With the on-flight exercise and the morning swim, I could feel my body recoving from the travel quicker than I have ever experienced. I was ready to hit the ground running.

4. Eat like a local 

Although my stomach was letting me know about its hunger from the moment the flight attendants started to give out breakfast trays, I decided to fast for a bit to allow my body to adjust to the local time at my destination. I remembered reading somewhere that jetlag is caused by slowed down metabolism and that abstaining from food on board of the aircraft as much as possible can be beneficial to the speed of your body’s adjustment to time change. As the dry breadroll served by the crew members was not particularly appealing, I decided to skip it and try something local upon landing.

While waiting for my hotel room to be ready, I ordered Kaya toast at a local breakfast joint. This Singaporean morning staple turned out to be a deliciously sweet toast filled with warm coconut jam. It was served with soft boiled eggs for dipping the toast in, and came with a milky kopi, Singapore’s traditional coffee brewed in a long, sock-like cotton strainer and poured multiple times between metal pots resembling watering cans.

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Throughout the day I followed the eating routine of the locals, ordering solely Asian food. Instead of listening to my hunger, I simply ate when everyone else seemed to be eating, thus giving my body a chance to adjust to the new timezone. I stuck, however, only to safe options I knew my stomach could handle, not to burden my digestive system unnecessarily.

5. Get tired 

After the traditional breakfast, I was ready to explore the city.  Contrary to the articles I read regarding taking it slow upon arrival, I knew that the only way for me to get some sleep at night was to tire myself out during the day. Instead of taking one of Singapore’s affordable taxis, I decided to walk everywhere (thus fitting even more exercise into the day).

I spent the first hour of my sightseeing in the breathtaking Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, with its beautifuly decorated halls and numerous statues extending across a number of floors.

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Following the visit to the Temple’s roof garden, I took a stroll through the colourful streets of Chinatown, where I stopped for lunch consisting of delicious vegetable dumplings. With my stomach full, I then carried on to the Sri Mariamman Temple, past which I turned into the busy Cross Street, walking all the way down Raffles Quay until I reached the restaurants and bars of the bay front and the iconic statue of Merlion. On the way back I passed the historic Fullterton hotel and headed past Marina Boulevard to the futuristic greenery of Gardens by the Bay. As the sun was setting down, I headed to the nearby tube station and took the train back to Chinatown.

6. Stay hydrated 

As I kept on walking in Singapore’s everlasting heat, I made sure to stay hydrated throughout the day. I kept on sipping on the numerous bottles of water as well as the fresh coconuts which proved to be a great defense against dehydration.

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I had also ensured I kept on drinking plenty of water and tomato juice during the flight, to keep my body’s cells regularly hydrated.

7. Say no to coffee

Despite the tiredness I began to feel in the afternoon, I tried to stay away from caffeine. Aside from only a few sips of the morning kopi, I managed to resist the temptation of coffee throughout the day and replaced my afternoon tea with an herbal brew in Tea Chapter.

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The tea house hidden behind the road works taking place on Neil Road welcomed me with its airconditioned coolness and silence. I orderded a mixture of herbs and enjoyed the natural, soothing warmth of the drink in a peaceful atomosphere. Perfect way to start unwinding after a long day.

8. Hide your watch

Before I could head for the bed however, I still had a few hours of work to complete. Back in Europe the day was just starting, so I had a number of emails waiting for me on top of the presentation for the following day. I tried, however, to answer only the most urgent messages and to do that from my phone rather than laptop –  to avoid seeing what time it was back in UK. I came to a conclusion that something that kept me from having jetlags in the past was the fact that I don’t wear a watch and I would avoid looking at time throughout the flight. This way, as I switched on my mobile phone, I would see only the local time and have only a rough idea how early or late it was back home. I decided to test out this hypothesis and avoid any sources of information regarding the time in London and think it worked quite well, as by the time Singapore was immersed in the embrace of the evening, I felt my body getting ready to sleep.

9. Follow the sleep routine 

As someone who has suffered insomnia for many years, I try to have a stable sleeping routine to prepare myself for bed. While traveling, it may be tempting to skip some of the things we tend to do before going to sleep at home, but I decided to try to recreate my bedtime routine as much as possible. I also allowed some extra time for reading in bed and falling  sleep than I usually do, to avoid the frustration I knew would come if I wasn’t able to doze off before midnight.

10. Take the right supplements 

To increase my chances at getting a good night sleep, I drank camomile and lemon balm tea, which is known for aiding relaxation and slumber. I put soft lights in the room, played gentle music, and enjoyed the hot drink in bed while reading an interesting novel. Out of precaution, I had packed some safe herbal sleeping pills if I had trouble sleeping, but it turned out not to be needed.

With all the excitement and fatigue of the day, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Next day I woke up rested and ready for work, no signs of jetlag in sight.

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I hope next time you travel,you manage to avoid it too! Sleep tight!

At least once

Singapore was a surprise from the very beginning. When my colleague asked whether I could go there to deliver client work, I jumped at this rare opportunity, only to realise that the date of the trip was falling right in the middle of the busiest time I’ve had at work this year. October run me down completely and the last thing I was looking forward to was being stuck in the tiny seat of the economy class for 15 hours. My excitement about this prospect was additionally dimmed by the terrible sinus infection I have been suffering from. I boarded the plane resigned to the idea that I would just deliver my work in Singapore and rest otherwise (after all, I’ve been to Singapore already and there was not that much to see anyways – I thought) during the half day before and after the delivery.

I was flying to Singapore through Dubai, to break the trip in the middle. At the time of booking it seemed like a good idea to have a short one hour stop over, but I did not take into the consideration that getting off the plane would take a lot of that precious time I had for the transfer, leaving me anxious that I might not make it in time to catch my next flight. As I left the plane, I approached the airport attendant who was standing in the jet bridge to ask about the gate for Singapore. Before the young man had a chance to reply, I heard a female voice. A friendly lady in a wheelchair was telling me to stick with her, as she was going to Singapore as well. Elaine, as I soon learnt was her name, told me that as a wheelchair user, she was going to be taken to our gate through a different route and that I should follow her. I wasn’t too sure about that, feeling somewhat like I was “cheating the system”, but before I had a chance to say anything, Elaine was already announcing to the gentleman who was escorting her that I was her grand daughter and was to travel with her to the plane. My adoptive grandma turned out to be an absolute delight to talk to and we stayed chatting until it was time to board the plane.

While most of the flight was pretty uneventful, the last hour of the journey turned out to be rather traumatising. Out of the blue, with no previous signs of turbulence, the plane suddenly begun to shake violently. People who were just standing up fell down on the floor or on fellow passangers, flight attendants hurriedly ordered everyone to take the nearest seat while they fastened their own seatbelts as well, their faces clearly worried. It was that which alarmed me the most. You know you’re in trouble when the crew members are just as scared as you are. I could feel my heart pounding wildly in my chest. In my head an alarm kept on ringing telling me in alternating sequence “this is it. This can’t be happening”. And then it all stoped. The plane regained its balance. Everyone began to look up again, seeking reassurance in others’ nervous smiles. We felt silly for getting so scared, and yet we silently knew that we got a glimpse into an experience that on this occassion was not meant for us, but one that we knew all too well is on everyone’s mind whenever they board the plane. The “what if”s. We will soon be telling our friends and families about this short incident as a little interesting anecdote, one of our many plane stories. But deep down we knew this time we got lucky and that knowledge, that split second before we regained our safety will forever stay with us. That knowledge of what goes on in your mind when you think you’re about to die. The knowledge that it’s not what they show in the movies. There is no life flashing back. It’s just pure fear that makes your heart want to break free from the rib cage to escape its own crazy pace, intertwined with the disbelief. It cannot be happening. Not really. Not now. Not to me. It’s like watching a movie where you have not fully registered yet that you’re the main star of. And then, when you feel it’s all too much, you are saved. No more falling. Everything slowly goes back to the way it was before. Everyone determined to pretend it was not what it was, that they did not feel what they felt. Forty minutes left till we land, I can do this – I kept on telling myself, my heart still struggling to regain its rhythm. Suddenly I could not wait to be in Singapore already.

Quick moves of the cabin luggage, withdrawal of local currency from the cash machine and swift passport control later I was breathing in the hot dampness of Singapore’s tropical air from the taxi. Arrival made easy. Just like everything else in Singapore.

And there it finally was. A place I visited seven years ago. A place that seemed completely unfamiliar. Has Singapore changed so much? Or have I?

The first time I had landed in Singapore I was on my way to Australia and I had decided to stop over in this tiny city-state for a day to break the long trip down under. It was middle of the summer and the hot humidity turned the world outside into a sauna. I remember seeking a temporary respite from the heat under the colourful arches of the South Bridge Road, drinking coconut water in the Chinatown and eating the famous Singapore chilli crab in the airconditioned restaurant. I remember the charming colourful buildings of Clarke Quay and the mocha tinted still water of the Singapore river. I also remember feeling ready to leave the next day.  Singapore was mildly interesting with its strange rules and a unique mix of the European and Asian culture, but it felt too familiar, too tame, while I craved an adventure, novelty, something different.

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Seven years later however, I found myself texting my husband to tell him I wanted to move here. Singapore no longer seemed dull. It seemed like a perfect place to live. The smallness of the island instead of constraining appeared convenient. I spent three days exploring the city and I was in love. What had seemed so boringly familiar was now tempting me with a promise of a comfortable life in this welcoming country where everyone spoke English and where within a 15 minute (cheap) taxi ride I could move from the office in the financial district to lush greenery of a botanical garden.

I suddenly remembered a photo I took all those years ago in a museum in Singapore.

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I came into an old movie showing in one of the museum rooms at the time. A man and a woman in black and white were singing on the screen. One particular line stuck out to me- “at least once in your life you must come to Singapore”. There was something meaningful in that statement at the time, but it was only few years later that the message fully hit me.

I needed to come to Singapore “at least once” to see not only the change in this place but the change in me. In 2010 I was a recent graduate, a single girl who was going on her first solo international trip and who couldn’t wait to see the world. In 2017, I was still just as hungry for the world, but I was an experienced consultant, a coach, a business psychologist happily married to the man I had a crush on all those years ago. A lot has happened in my life in those seven years, and Singapore developed and changed, so did I. And I found this change reassuring. Those years ago I found Singapore disappointing because it didn’t live up to my expectations of the “exotic” at the time. But since then I have traveled to so many places that I was less hungry for the idealised novelty and instead could actually see Singapore the way it was. I could wonder around with curiosity about the way people lived there. The country has inevitably changed since my last visit, but so have my perceptions of it. I was disappointed when I reflected on the pessimism with which I approached this trip, but I felt happy that despite the illness and exhaustion, my love for travel kicked in the moment I landed in Singapore. There were things I had to review around my energy and priorities, but my life was not standing in a place, I wasn’t stuck in my ways, I kept on moving and embracing the change. And I was happy with where life was taking me. I felt like the changes I’ve noticed in the city, reflected the changes in me. Like the city, I was still under construction, but I too, was blossoming, improving and growing. Perhaps “at least once in your life you must come to Singapore” not just to see this unique place, but to really see yourself.

 

 

Between the old and new

Arriving at the Beijing South Railway station I wasn’t sure whether our taxi driver hadn’t accidently drove us to the airport. The grand, modern building with the security screening at the entrance and large screens displaying times of departures and arrivals, resembled more the international ports of embarkation rather than local train station.

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Inside its clean and spacious interior, passengers were completing last minute shopping, ensuring the abundance of edible goods for their long journeys.  Colourful screens tempted the more reluctant buyers with the mouth-watering pictures of food in the ads, while the YouKu channel showed Durian Mousse Cheesecake recipe. The food and travel in vital symbiosis.

Minutes before departure, outside our gate to the platform, a queue began to form. Patient travelers standing neatly one by one, awaited the arrival of a petite woman who soon appeared by the sliding door. Her red lips announcing to the headset microphone that one should get their passport ready. In China, whether you’re booking a train ticket or paying an entrance fee to the Forbidden city, your passport will be required.

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The neat interior of the train soon began to clash with the chaos brought by its passengers. The seats in our carriage were soon filled with families busily arranging their luggage in the overhead compartments. The commotion was accompanied by a series of distressing sounds. To the shock of many foreign tourists, many Chinese people still have a habit of making a snorting sound to clear out their nose and sinuses of excess phlegm, which is then often spat out. To someone unaccustomed to such practice, the noise associated with it appears rather reprehensible, although those engaging in the activity would surely point out that according to the Chinese medicine retention of mucus harms the health of our body. And so we spent the next five hours surrounded by the sound of snoring, snorting and random exclamations coming from a loud video game played by the little boy with a passion for kicking seats.

In my desperate attempts to block out the clamour, I increased the volume on my headphones and directed my attention towards the window. Behind the rows of neat trees planted in perfect lines, I could notice fields and occasional farmers. Their bent over silhouettes clad in the iconic rice hats, its conical shape protecting them from the sun. Within a matter of minutes, the farmers would give way to the concrete forest of the city’s skyscrapers. These giants growing out of nowhere, making you feel lost in the jungle of sameness. There was something sad in the contrast of the high speed train and the changing landscape.

As we sped across the cityscape and countryside I couldn’t help but feel that there’s a discord between China the country and its people. The large building sites, colossal housing projects and perfect rows of trees planted in equal intervals provided the sense of controlled progress, yet it seemed to be a progress that people were not yet prepared for. In most of the places I’ve traveled to, the development seemed more aligned – cities would grow organically, expand more by the movement of people than the municipal lines. Here, the growth seemed imposed. Everything seemed like a big project that was well planned and executed, but that was failed to be communicated to the people.  The Chinese Communist Party seems to know what to do to bring China not up to speed with other countries, but to exceed them. But it seems like they don’t always remember to bring people on board, leaving the Chinese lost in this unknown reality, stuck between attempts to adjust and their longing for tradition. If this was anywhere else, I would wonder which side will win in this battle between future and the past. But China has a unique ability to accept the dualities, to bring the yin and yang together and carve for itself a pocket of calm right in the middle of the taijitu sign. Maybe that’s the key to success in today’s world.

 

 

The Forbidden City

The morning sun finally brought me some respite from the jet-lag. At 6 am my body finally decided it was ready to go to sleep and I managed to rest for a few hours. Usually four hours of sleep would get me just about to a zombie level of alertness, but as the excitement of visiting China kicked in, I was ready to explore the city.

I like my first encounters with a city to be on foot. I enjoy strolling around the streets, just absorbing the place I’m in. Slowly. Allowing its energy to take over. Beijing was going to be no different.

After leaving the hotel, I decided to follow the street in front of it (secretly hoping it would eventually lead me to a place where I could give in to my caffeine addiction). The streets of Beijing felt a bit dusty in the heat of the day. The wide roads seemed surprisingly empty, with occasional cyclists cheerfully pedaling through the shade cast by refreshing green of the trees. We passed a family hailing a cab outside of the entrance to a restaurant decorated in incomprehensible yet beautiful regular features of the Chinese characters. Here and there an elderly person slowly shuffled their feet down the uneven pavement. Listless vendors, hiding from the sun, were selling beautifully wrapped steamed snacks and tea eggs floating in the dark sauce. That morning Beijing’s sleepy energy seemed to be matching mine.

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After a considerable stroll in the unbearable heat, my husband and I decided to stop by a modern looking noodle bar. In the absence of cafes, we hoped this place filled with Chinese youth would perhaps have an English menu or someone who could help us translate our need for caffeine into some semi-clear communication. Coming to China we knew language may be an issue, but we probably underestimated just how difficult it might be to find an English speaker on the streets of Beijing.

Inside the clean space sparsely filled with tall white and blond wood furniture, a woman at the counter pointed at the digital menu next to two cute, chubby figurines of a Maneki-neko, happily waving at the visitors. This lucky charm has become widely associated with China and is often known as the Chinese waving cat, even though the talisman is actually of Japanese origin and symbolises  the “beckoning cat” which according to some folktales has brough good fortune to an impoverished vendor who gave it shelter. The figurines’ position is often important, with the raised left paw often found in restaurants and bars due to the belief that it brings luck in business.

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We picked two most breakfast like items from the menu on the screen and sat outside, breathing in Beijing’s slow busyness and the faint remains of smog. Our espressos arrived, followed shortly by the golden crusted deep fried mung bean dough and a sesame rice one. The crunchy coating was hot. Its bluntness revealing the fading taste of oil it was friend in. After just one bite however, it turned out to be the mere canvas for the thick dark paste inside. Its sweetness nicely contrasting with the absence of  flavour on the little crusty pocket surrounding it.

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Having eaten and people watched to a satisfactory level, it was time to make a move. We walked back to our hotel and asked the receptionist about a cab to Tiananmen Square. We had only one day in Beijing before heading to Shanghai and it wouldn’t be until two weeks later that we would be visiting this city again for three days on the way back home. If there was one thing I really wanted to see in Beijing was the place that saw the history being made.

It was here that the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. It was also here that 40 years later that same Republic got hundreds of its people massacred. What is now known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in the West (and refered to as the “June 4th Incident” in China) took place in 1989 in order to forcibly suppres the protests of Chinese students who, ironically, called for democracy and freedom of speech. The peaceful protesters were silenced with tanks and assault rifles. Their youthful hope crushed by ruthless reality. The “Gate of Heavenly Peace” brought nothing but sorrow to its people.

I wanted to stand where it all happened. I expected to feel the pain of history the way you do when you stand in front of the pile of human hair in Auschwitz and the devastating reality hits you with full force. But it wasn’t like that at all.

First, I wasn’t even sure whether we have reached Tiananmen square until I saw the iconic face of Mao watchfully trumphing over the gate to the Forbidden City. The square looks inconspicuous thanks to the two lively arteries cutting through it. The cars speeding up and down, passing the square in a seemingly complete oblivion to the bloodshed that took place there less than 30 years ago. China is a funny creature. It’s like a pedestrian who witnesses an acident, but looks the other way round to stay away from the trouble. You can judge his social interia, but it’s probably a learnt helpessness that has taught him to look down and carry on. A self preservation instinct. China is good at not seeing what it doesn’t want to see. This selective memory being especially evident in hundreds of selfies and group photos taken with Mao. His round, rosy cheeks – totally instagramable. Only the old woman in elaborate ethnic clothes not taking out her camera.

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Under the watchful eye of the chairman, crowds of Chinese tourists enter the crimson walls of the Forbidden City. This Imperial Palace served as the home and political arena of the emperors from the Ming Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty which came to an end in 1912. It was that year that after long period of unrest, a decision was made for the child emperor Puyi to abdicate, bringing the Imperial China to its end. The unorganised warlord factionalism that soon followed, made the country vulnerable and opened a way fo the Japanese who invaded China in the 1930s, creating a puppet state governed by emperor Puyi. It was a difficult and hopeless time for the Chinese, who were treated appalingly by the invaders. The cruelty of those times, from the hands of the Japanese as well as the home-grown warlords, probably can shed some more light as to the ease with which Mao’s communist slogans swiped the nation off its feet. In 1945 the Chinese just regained their independence. What they didn’t know was that bit by bit they would lose it again.

In 1949 the conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang is officially ended with Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. He does that at the Tiananmen, by the entrance to the Forbidden City –  a former home and political centre of the imperial China.

Beijing means the “Northern Capital”, a name which accentuates the difference between Nanjing, i.e. “South Capital”, which was China’s former ruling city. This same place however used to be known as Shuntian, and called Beiping (meaning “Northern Peace”) beforehand. Just as the area evolved, so did its names – allowing the city multiple rebirths. New name, new life. There’s something hopefull in this fluidity, a certain magic to Chinese language’s ability to change the reality.

Learning about the Chinese language was like discovering different China. What on surface seems rough and sounds a little sharp, turns out to be full of beauty and subtle meanings. I have always enjoyed pondering the ways in which language shapes our minds and culture. For example, in Chinese, there is no concept of plural noun the way it exists in the European languages. The difference between plural and singular is not as clear from the noun itself, but rather infered from the context of the sentence. Furthermore, with the Chinese being a tonal language, the correct meaning of the word is deduced from the pitch, or the tone, used to pronounce it. Interestingly, when Beijing is uttered with a different tone, it turns into “background”. I find something poetic about this difference. Perhaps this duality holds the key to understanding the nature of this place.

The “Forbidden” part of the Forbidden City, refers to the fact that nobody was allowed to enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission. The name in Chinese refers to the North Star which in traditional Chinese astrology was the heavenly abode of the Celestial Emperor. The “Forbidden City” was to reflect that the palace complex was the residence of terrestrial counterpart. When its construction began in 1406, the layout was  to mirror the palaces in Nanjing, the former capital. Morever, the building plans were made in accordance with the  feng shui, a Chinese philosophical system of harmony with the surrounding environment.

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The sense of harmony prevails around the place complex. The gates with lyrical names like “Manifest Virtue”, lead us through a  series of wide squares adorned with sculptures in front of simple yet beautifuly decorated buildings covered with traditional, elaborately carved rooftops over colorful ceilings. Everything full of meaning, placed in a well thought out manner. Intimidating in its grandeure, yet humble in its simplicity.

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After few hours of walking unhurriedly around surprisingly spacious palace grounds and having sufficiently enjoyed the shade of its garden, it was time to leave the Forbidden City.  We got out on the side of the Jingshan Park, and decided to walk around the area, curious as to where our feet would take us. We followed the grey pavement alongside the grey road to grey alleyways enwraped in grey walls of the surrounding buildings. Few tea breaks and many kilometers later, we found ourselves lost in the jungle of Chinese hutongs. From the land of skyscrappers and wide multiways, we were suddenly transported to the monochrome world of narrow alleyways. The uniform ash-coloured brick walls were guarding the privacy of their inhabitants. Only the occassionally parked motorcycle or a bike, alongside drying clothes fluttering gently in the soft wind revealed the place is not abandoned.

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There was something diferent about this place. Like encountering a secret you were not meant to be privy to. The hutong neighbourhood was so different to the tall blocks of houses dotting the Beijing skyline. It felt like a timetravel. It was only later that I realized how lucky we were coming across this area.

Hutongs, traditional alleys formed of square courtyard houses known as siheyuan, have been demolished en masse over the last few decades to make space for the “bigger and better” China. Walking past the vermilion entrance gates, hiding from the sun under sloping rooftops, I knew I was trespassing on the world that wasn’t mine to understand. The screen walls protecting the residents not only from curious gaze and evil spirits, but also from the world that despite rapid growth many Chinese did not seem to be ready for. Just like the thick walls between me and the real life of hutongs, there was an invisible barrier between tourists and people of Beijing. In the jungle of characters I wasn’t able to decipher, lost in translation, I had to resort to the parts of China I was welcome to see. Yes to a Peking duck, no to a political debate. For the first time in a while I felt forced to being a tourist rather than a traveler. But it was only my first day in China and I was determined to peek behind the walls. As soon as I finished that Peking duck that is.

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