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[This is older than a thousand-year egg…]

I’ve found my hotel in Beijing through booking.com which meant it was safe and we shouldn’t have any problems. The single review warned about the receptionist’s lack of English skills. I picked the place because it was close to Clau’s accommodation and I assumed it’s across the street from him. It turned out our „hotels” were in the same enormous building. In fact, I’m grateful it wasn’t across the street, I’ve seen some pretty dodgy places around there.

He checked-in at the reception on the ground floor. Mine was on the 2nd floor, in a room. We arrived around noon, peeked through the open door and noticed something that resembled a reception desk. Reluctantly, I entered, followed by Clau. And now that I think of it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but I’m sure nothing could’ve prepared me at that time for what I found there. On the opposite side of the room, a Chinese family – mom, dad, kids and grandma –  were having lunch. They stopped and stared as if we shouldn’t have been there. At that point I didn’t know whether I should run or laugh. For a second I imagined my dad amused by our story – „Si unde v-ati dus voi, mai copii?”. I could see their bedroom with a giant Buddha wallpaper above the bed. To the left, the kitchen and bathroom doors were open. Some laundry was drying on a rack. Our presence felt intrusive and offensive.

The man realised we’re customers and stood up hastily. I gave him my printed reservation and my ID. It soon became clear that he didn’t speak English AT ALL!! He didn’t understand any of check-in, reservation, passport, money, pay at check-out, receipt. Luckily, Clau knew all of these in Chinese. I wouldn’t have survived without him. Seriously, if you ever go to China, learn how to say „fapiao”. It means receipt and it will save your life. The guy insisted that we pay at check-in. We couldn’t argue much, he kept using his phone to translate his requests. The thought that they might terribly need the money crossed my mind so I gave up and paid for everything. Then he told us something about electricity. The phone app was useless, we had to call Shu, our Chinese friend, and ask him to translate it for us. Apparently, we had an allowance of 10 degrees of electricity for the whole stay. Up to now, I still don’t know what that means. We didn’t go over the amount, though, as we didn’t have to pay extra. In the following days any interaction with the hotel staff felt inappropriate. Most of the time we would find them in their pajamas, doing laundry or other chores in their unusual household.

My room was right above Clau’s, although, technically, we were in different hotels. Overall, it was functional and had all the basic fittings. I couldn’t get the TV to work, but the AC was, thankfully, in good condition. They never entered the room to clean or take the trash. In fact, I don’t think they ever cleaned the place, just changed the bedsheets when we left. It looked like a hotel, but it was nothing like it.

I was extremely tired and all I wanted was to sleep, but we were in Beijing and I had only 10 days and it was all exciting, so I couldn’t rest. We walked two subway stops to his workplace – my chance to get a closer look at Beijing streets. The heat, the pungent smell, the people rushing around, the dust, the old communist architecture contrasting the modern sky-scrapers – it all screamed at me and I was tired and found it difficult to cope. Clau was already accustomed with all of it, but I felt entirely overwhelmed. As a bonus, I somehow managed to get blisters on my feet on the way to Beijing. I’m not sure how that was possible, but I was already up for a rough start.

We had lunch in a deserted mall food court. His favourite restaurants were all closed. It simply wasn’t lunch time anymore. I ordered duck and the cook chopped it – bones included – in front of me. I ended up eating with my hands. My skills in handling chopsticks did not cover removing tiny pieces of bones from my food.

Then we walked around for a while, but I was so tired I couldn’t even stand. At every step I genuinely wondered whether I would be able to take the next one or not. We called the guys and decided to meet for dinner. Clau joined them in their office while I was resting on a couch in the lobby.

We had dinner at one of their favourite places – just me, Clau, George and our new friend Shu around a huge dish of spicy Kung Pao chicken. They also ordered some omelet and I felt relieved that I could find a simple dish to soothe my suffering. The chicken was amazingly good, but oh so very spicy. I was fishing around the dried chillies in vain. Not to mention that chopsticks are very difficult to use when you can barely lift your arms off the table.

Out of the blue Shu told me that I was pretty, that I looked even better than in the photos he had seen. I didn’t know how to respond to his sincere outburst. He was paying me a compliment and all I could think about was that I had just flown for 14 hours and I had a bad hair day, that my face was so sleepy it could’ve peeled off and left me and that, in spite all the showers, my skin was all sticky because of the heat and the dust on the streets. His convincing tone would’ve been mistaken as flirting in the Western world. I mumbled something about not being in the best shape and thanked him, then I quickly looked at Clau for an explanation. He confirmed – yes, Chinese people are that direct. They don’t hide behind words, they say what’s on their mind.

I remember vaguely the trip back to the hotel. We took the subway because I was exhausted. I slept soundly in spite of the trains going back and forth, the Amazon depot downstairs and the delivery guys beginning their shift at 6 am. Next day was fully booked and I was a wreck.

Anunțuri

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?

–       China…

–       o.O

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.

My neighbour was watching some Dr Seuss movie and this is where it froze during the pilot’s announcement. I just had to snap a photo. ^^

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.

BookFrenzy

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O pata gri intr-un ocean de culoare.

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