Interested in International Security, Terrorism and Geopolitics. Constantly on the look out for my next travel adventure.
I write this on my flight to Bangkok, nervous that I am now riding solo and don’t have anyone like Adam to rely upon. His help, appreciation of the Chinese culture and hospitality all contributed to what has been an absolutely unforgettable six days and it is now that the backpacking adventure rely begins. New friends and experiences hopefully lie ahead when i touch down in Thailand, I will let you all know how that goes.
So Beijing then. Where to start? The country is NOTHING like what I expected at all, I mean they are still communist and I imagined it to be all dark and unwelcoming like Russia with the frantic crowding synonymous with rush hour on the London underground. Neither was the case. The people are unbelievably friendly and humble, the country is really modern and beijing is undeniably flourishing. The city is unbelievably big, geographically and in the sense that it’s 20million residents is three times that of Greater London. Despite this the city is calm and peaceful and rarely feels over crowded or intimidating, I felt at ease within hours. I mean we organised to go to a restaurant where the owner offered to show us how to cook their favourite chicken dish, we ended up cooking two dishes under his supervision and having an amazing couple of hours. Then when the guy found out I was only in town for a few more days he insisted that I didn’t pay for any of it, such was his kindness and determination to give me a positive impression of his country. We dutifully ordered take away food from him another time and the karma was restored but it was things like this, which happened all the time, that really highlighted how virtuous the Chinese people are, and that is the single biggest thing I think I learned from my time in China.
So what did I see? Well The history of China is one of imperialism, the country was run by emperor’s for hundreds of years and they lived in the most remarkable palaces and had incredible temples built to worship their gods. For example I was in the ‘forbidden city’ today, where emperor’s resided while in Beijing. It is made up of 900 buildings, is about a kilometre deep and was only accessible if you were the emperor, empress off one of his mistresses. Quite ridiculous but an awesome assertion of power to his millions of subjects. Even more incredible was their summer retreat just outside Beijing, the aptly named ‘summer palace’. Again it wasn’t just one building, we are talking hundreds of grand halls and pavilions, all with really funny literal translations such as “the tower of moonlight ripples” “the dragon king temple” “the hall of embracing the universe” and the “temple of heartfelt contentment”. This is all based around one gorgeous lake, littered with traditional dragon boats and all in all the most impressive palace/ complex/ site/ residence I have ever seen. I was walking along the longest corridor in the world thinking to myself that The Taj Mahal wouldn’t come close to blowing me away in the same way that the summer palace was able to (sorry India).
That’s probably enough about architecture and culture, obviously I went to The Great Wall too which I could spend all day listing superlatives for, but what I would say is that you all HAVE to visit China, and especially Beijing, at some point. It really is breath taking and full of absolutely jaw dropping sites. However what i really wanted to share with you was an incredible day I was fortunate enough to have on my second day here, it really was life changing:
So we woke up hungover (free bar + free karaoke + traditional Chinese drinking games) and Adams bout of illness had gotten worse. I headed out with his two American friends to give him a chance to recover and we made our way to this exquisite Chinese tea shop in the Hutong area which is really traditional buildings all surrounded by little alleyways. Jamie knew the woman and we tried like 8 of her teas and we sat there for well over an hour as they talked in mandarin and she demonstrated the traditional way of brewing the tea. Jamie bought a number of things from her and we trotted off to give them to this family he had met before as a gift. We get to this tiny little house and there is a tour group in the house already but are invited to wait in this room with all these old weapons on the wall. The family are into their 4th generation of Kung Fu masters and have lived in this tiny house for 150 years. Once the youngest son has finished telling the group about kung fu and doing an demonstration they leave and we get a chance to talk to catch up ad be introduces. When the family see that we have brought them a gift they insist we come back for dinner later on that evening.
Fast forward past dropping one of our contingent back at her subway station and going up “the drum tower” which has drums the size of elephants in it which used to tell the time for the city by being beaten at regular intervals, and we are back with the family. The mother shows us how to make dumplings and then the father returns which signals we leave the lady and join him at the dinner table. (the two guys I’m with are american but live in beijing and are fluent) The food was fantastic and we literally banqueted, but it was the things that came with it that we’re incredible. I learned so much about Chinese etiquette and customs which we really need more of in the western world, like for instance if you were to ever fill up your glass anything but last it would be the ultimate sign of rudeness, and that you don’t leave any dish empty as that implies the host hasn’t provided you with enough, and (my favourite) that when your glasses come together for a toast you make sure your glass is lower than the most senior person in the group, it’s a way of respecting people. The conversation was amazing too, although it obviously had to be translated the father always talked directly to me to keep me involved and the five of us laughed and laughed an laughed. They were teaching me words, telling me about their kung fu history and showing us all these famous people they have met. For perspective the father trained alongside Jet Li and their house is full of pictures of their sons with Jackie Chan and doing the most ridiculous moves during competition. Then the 96 year old grandfather, who could barely walk, came in, picked up a sword and started moving it around with lightning pace and precision, it was remarkable. I am not being funny I am a foot and a half/ 5 stone heavier than this old old man and I still got the sense he would destroy me in a matter of seconds. We talked to the father about how he was saddened that Kung fu was now a dying art, and how the state didn’t really value it or their traditions any more. They will be having their home repossessed next year, not because they owe money on it, but because in China the state owns the ground and can kick you out whenever they please, with compensation but that’s not the point. It was sad to see how many of the traditions that this wonderful family embodied were being eroded in China and how powerless they were to do anything, I guess this is the dark side of communism.
The night moved on to karaoke. Standard. And by this point we have all had a lot of beer. When the grandfather stood up and sang “the east is red” (an old communist anthem) it dawned on me how much of a transformation in China he has seen. He probably hadn’t seen a white person until 20 years ago and now there are three in his house singing the Beatles. The karaoke was hilarious and there was a lot of love in the room. By the time we left I had learned so so much about China, about how its people live, about it’s traditions and customs, about it’s history and kung fu, about the values and kindness of its people, about it’s food and (my favourite) its etiquette. Jamie (who has lived in China for ages) said that the evening was like nothing he’d ever experience and was “once in a lifetime”, I feel incredibly humbled and lucky to have been involved With the whole thing and it left me in the most fantastic mood….. Not bad considering I couldn’t understand a word of it!
Lesson to be learned people: if you show one tiny bit of kindness (buying this family some tea) then anything can happen. In this case we touched a family enough for them to invite two complete strangers to feast with them for 4 hours in what turned out to be one of the most remarkable and amazing days of my life. I climbed the great wall of china this week but yet I feel like this family will be the memory I cherish the most from an incredible week in Beijing.
If any of the other places I will be visiting and traveling to can touch, impress and inspire me in the way that Beijing has then I will be an extremely lucky man. Big love goes out to Adam who was a brilliant host and ensured I had a remarkable six days. I am sure neither of us will tire of being bounded up to by a group of Chinese people who want their photos taken with us (5 times a day) and have some memories neither of us will ever forget. Sandy mate if you are reading this you are going to have the most incredible time I can assure you, I’m jealous you get ten days in the country and will also be seeing shanghai!
So the next stage of my adventure begins, I honestly couldn’t tell you where I will be this time next week, apparently that’s half the fun. I’m sure it shouldn’t be too hard to find some like minded travellers watching the English rugby match on Saturday (if all else fails). Time to see if Thailand will live up to the hype!!