From the moment of our very first encounter Beijing was not what I had expected. Embarking on our little Asian adventure, Beijing was one of the places I was less curious to see. I was dreaming of Tokyo, Seoul, perhaps Shanghai. Beijing was less glamorous and to be very honest, I was a little prejudicial towards China and its capital. To fully understand my feelings you need to know something about the weeks leading up to my trip.
Things have been very busy at work and on the private front the journey coincided with a move. Every day after work I would pick up a bunch of stuff I packed in the morning and hurry to the new place. Whenever I was not working, I was moving. The only leisure I allowed myself was reading. And I had a lot of it to do before the flight. You see, to my great delight, the book club I’m a member of, chose for our June discussion Madeleine Thien’s “Do not say we have nothing”. If you have not read it (which you should do), this little literary gem is about the life in China under chairman Mao. The book depicts the brutality with which communism was “introduced” across the country. It exposes the insanity of some of the reforms introduced during the Great Leap Forward, a socio-economic campaign introduced by the Communist Party of China between 1958-1962. Amongst the violent persecutions of the landowners and any “counter-revolutionaries” or simply anyone deemed inconvenient to Mao and his supporters, the mainland Chinese were subjected to compulsory agricultural collectivization and failed reforms resulting in famine.
One of Mao Zedong’s most misguided initiatives in that time was the Great Sparrow Campaign. In 1958, the Chairman’s obsession with industrialization drove people to produce steel at the expense of attending to the crops. The lack of skilled farmers looking after the fields was made worse by the invasion of locust, which was a direct result of Mao’s order to eradicate the sparrows. People across the land went outside and continued making terrible racket with the pots and pans to scare the sparrows away from resting on the trees. Thousands of sparrows kept on falling dead from the sky, exhausted from continuous strain of flying. The famine that resulted from this insane reform, together with the brutality of the Cultural Revolution that followed few years later, lead to death of tens of millions of the Chinese people. This, among other books on Chinese history, such as “ Wild Swans” by Jung Chang, left me feeling bitter about the country I was about to visit.
As the plane was nearing the tarmac, I felt the familiar agitation I often experience when arriving at an unfamiliar place at night. During the day, novelty is always exciting. At night, that same excitement is replaced by a certain kind of foreboding. I expected great lights and a buzzing metropolis as I looked through the oval of the plastic windows. Somehow I had expected Beijing to be grander than it appeared at a first glance.
To my surprise however, the airport was much more impressive. Beijing welcomed us in a grand style. The Arrivals hall appeared modern and clean, leaving us feeling small under the well-lit spacious dome of its ceiling. As we managed to travel light, we had no luggage to collect and after a short journey by an airport train to the arrival hall, we had our bags scanned and took an elevator to a taxi stand. Two petite women in uniforms asked us to follow their male colleague to the pre-paid taxi, while they continued their conversation with the airport guards. The skinny men in their beige uniforms looked more like teenage boys playing dress-up than serious government officials. If that was the face of the communism, perhaps the party wasn’t as scary as it had seemed?
The taxi ride proved to be more exciting than I had anticipated. The hot night air blowing into the speeding car zig-zaging its way through wide motorway through the open windows made all the former anxiety disappear. I felt strangely at peace racing through the night streets of Beijing, despite the driving skills of Chinese drivers being clearly on par with the deadly fluidity of movement that I’ve seen so far only in India and Pakistan. I was in a brand new world, lost in the jungle of skyscrapers adorned by characters I could not decipher which in their red and yellow neon lights seemed to warm up the night and decorate the sky.
As we arrived at the Holiday Inn Dongzhimen, we swiftly checked in and went for a midnight stroll around the area in search for food. Despite the late hour, the time difference between Beijing and London left us wide awake and famished. The streets outside the hotel were peaceful and except for an occasional cyclist cruising leisurely through the city, there weren’t many people around. We decided to eat at the little noodle place nearby, where a few fellow night owls were enjoying their meal. After a quick look at the menu, my husband went for the option he knew from home while I decided to try the traditional Beijing Noodles, which turned out to be a bowl of plain noodles with the celeriac, cucumber, cabbage and soy toppings served with a dark fermented paste. The meal was more blunt than most of the Chinese I tried before, but the variety of fresh vegetables created a light and refreshing taste when combined with the sauce. I also ordered plum juice which sweetness and heavy texture were strangely satisfying.
Once our stomachs were happy, we returned to the hotel. I washed the long trip off and went to bed, sure that the exhaustion of the 15 hours on the plane will put me to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I closed my eyes.Nothing.
When traveling to different time zones I have one rule – do not look at the clock. Over the years of travel I learnt that one of the best ways to avoid the jet lag is simply not to look at any devices that could remind you of the time at the place of embarkation. I would ensure a complete ignorance regarding the time difference between home and my destination, block out any information regarding the timing during the flight and make sure I didn’t see the time on my phone until it connected to the local provider and updated itself. Throughout the years my system seemed to have worked – jet lag remained a mythical problem that I blissfully remained immune to. Until I traveled to China.
You see, despite my attempts at explaining to him how The System works, my husband had clearly decided that knowledge is power and against my will proceeded to inform me about what time it would have been back home the second we arrived in Beijing. What I hadn’t known back then, was that I was about to experience my very first encounter with that legendary phenomenon. While my husband innocently drifted off to sleep, I remained awake for the rest of the night. No amount of twists and turns seemed to help, so at 5 am I finally gave up any hope for a nap and sat by the window to look my tormentor in the eye. When I saw Beijing bathing in the warm redness of the rising sun, I couldn’t help but feel a bit grateful to being privy to this magnificent show. The lone souls cycling through the city on the yellow rented bicycles made me less lonely. There was something poetic in their haste to start the day which I was so desperately hoping to end. I was still holding on to the past while China pedaled its way into the future.