As the train leaves the terminal, emerging from a glass and steel eggshell, I catch the first glimpse of China. Born and raised in a former communist country, I am somehow expecting this. However, no story, no remnants of a past era, no seeds of a similar background and mentality could have prepared me for the grandeur and the desolation that stretches now beneath my feet.
Vast boulevards, colossal buildings and our tracks, suspended above dusty patches of green and shy trees; they’re all showing their pale concrete glistening into the harsh sun and their rusty hinges seem to have been stuck for decades.
But the people… where are the people? The train is filled with tourists, mostly Asian, still, tourists carrying enormous suitcases. None of them seems to fit in this post-apocalyptic scenery.
20 min later and our first stop. We swap the train for the subway. Suddenly there’s some bustle, some proof of human inhabitance. They were hidden all along, away from the burning sunlight. Still, not as many people as I have expected. Beijing seems generous and spacious up to this point. For some reason they prefer to stick together, coalescing into huge pools of human flesh. There’s obviously enough space for everybody at this time of the day. They act regardless, as if the urban jungle constantly requires full time commitment and awareness. Keep pushing, don’t stop and you will succeed!
I don’t feel I’m in a particular hurry. I let them pass and calmly claim my spot on the train. The cool breeze of the AC system works wonders. I become more responsive to Clau’s attempts of teaching me Chinese characters. For the first time it becomes obvious that all those labels, all those names – the ones I’ve always assumed they’re some sort of misspelling – make perfect sense and have clear meanings. It’s the first time I hear about
中 (zhong) – middle
门 (men) – gate
口 (kou) – mouth
西 (xi) – west
北 (bei) – north
山 (shan) -mountain
出 (chu) – out
出口 – exit
人 (ren) – man
大 (da) – large
火 (huo) – fire
I’m tired from the long trip. I’ve grown accustomed to flights and airports and I did my best not to panic too much about this long journey. I didn’t tell many people where I was going, so I found a certain sick pleasure in casually saying to my neighbour that morning, over a pan of scrambled eggs:
– Oh, I have a plane to catch.
– Where are you going?
Or the taxy driver taking me to the train station:
– Where are you heading?
– Heh, China.
– Oh, that’s a long way!
I was playing it cool. I was actually terrified. Even from the gate at the Munich Airport it became clear that I was heading towards a different world. I felt unease surrounded by a bunch of strangers with squinty eyes that spoke funny sounds my ear could not even acquire. My self-preserving instincts kicked in as I withdrew in my anti-social protective cocoon.
Behind me in the queue there was a noisy group of British girls. I prayed that I get to sit next to a quiet person. I ended up sitting next to one of them. It turned out they were very nice, especially as they soon became one of the very few people that could understand what I was saying.
Inside the plane, a mother soothes her toddler in Romanian. Boy, we’re everywhere! I keep quiet and pick a movie to watch. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… Something to channel my attention towards my new adventure and to prepare me for what is worse. The movie speaks about expectations and harsh realities, about thriving in a hostile environment, about accepting strangers and becoming part of their lives.
I watched the sunrise on the plane and wondered why Asia looks so flat. As we approached Beijing I realised it wasn’t flat at all, but the mountains were simply very different from what I knew and what I expected. The landscape would alternate between wide plateaus covered with grid cities, perfectly aligned and incredibly monotonous, and brown peaks with sharp ridges and deep valleys. It took me a while to distinguish it, but I have the proof:
I got to see the wall!
The airport in itself is spectacular. The tiled ceramic roof resembles the back of a dragon warming its scales into the sun. I’m slightly nervous at the security check. We queue for ages. I have a visa. They check my passport and check, and take photos, all in a perfect silence. I try to keep calm, this is how it will all be for the rest of my holiday. Just go with the flow, you won’t get any explanations, no one will address you in English, not even to say hi. Patience. I then must take a train to baggage claim. I don’t like trains in airports. I always panic that I get the wrong one and waste time being in the wrong place and this is truly not the place for mistakes.
At the exit I meet Clau and I feel safe again. “Hello there! I haven’t seen you in four months and you’re almost a stranger now. But I trust you and I’m glad you’re here. I’m experiencing a bit of sensorial overload and I have troubles in identifying and following the Exit signs. Also, I promise I’ll recover soon and be myself again. Some decent sleep would do the trick.” No, I didn’t say all that, I was too overwhelmed.
So, yes, I’m tired, but ready. A few more stops and we reach our destination. I’m not expecting to find Europe there. I just hope the experience will be enjoyable, as I am determined to make the most of it.