From Beijing, with love

Community star Joel McHale delivered more fat jokes at governor Chris Christie’s expense than was probably warranted at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner a few nights ago. The zinger that comes to mind now as I consider my time in Beijing was, ‘Wow. You, sir, are a glutton – for punishment.’

Guilty as charged. Although for the first couple of days I didn’t really eat that much in my post-food poisoned state.

There was the $1.50 dinner I had on my first night, which consisted of some unsalted corn broth and a few meat-filled steamed buns (of which I only managed to eat a couple of bites). There were the 5CNY bananas I purchased from the hostel drinks and fruit fridge. But my first proper meal in China since I’d started puking my guts out a day and a half hence in North Korea was a 6″ tuna sub eaten at the Mutianyu Great Wall of China Subway.

The Great Wall of China
What they don’t tell you about the Great Wall is that while it looks like a wall from the side, “inside” are lots and lots and lots of steps. From the pictures, I’d thought that walking the wall consisted of walking along a flat path that merely inclined up and down. The reality is a lot of stair climbing, up and down.

For some reason, I’d also thought it would be a good idea to subject myself to the Great Wall of China with only one full meal behind me across the previous 36 hours. I guess I figured that it would be a long van ride offering plenty of time to rest. Whatever my thinking, going there on the day that I did turned out incredibly fortuitous.

As I was slogging my way through the first kilometre of the 2 kilometre round trip I had assigned myself, I came upon a friendly face. This turned out to be Mark (of Mastication Monologues fame), someone who had been in North Korea at the same time as me but in a different group. What are the odds, right: knowing someone from North Korea and then meeting them on the Great Wall of China. We arranged to do dinner the following night (read about the dinner here on Mark’s blog).

There’s nothing like visiting one of the great wonders of the world to remind you of the gaps that exist in your knowledge of world history. It took touring the Great Wall and later, seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an for the dots to be connected that the same emperor, Emperor Qin, was behind both. The commentary I received from my guides also brought home that Emperor Qin had also united China with one written language, but that all these achievements were not without the infliction of great brutality.

Okay, history lesson over.

Of all the things I hadn’t expected – how challenging a walk/hike the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall would be and bumping into someone I knew – hearing Rhianna’s “We found love” blasting from a boom box of some vendors was right up there on the list. The vendors, two women and a man getting on in their years, but the women sprightly, were selling water, snacks, and Communist-style hats, which they urged passing tourists to try on. Once a tourist agreed, the vendors offered to take a photo of them wearing it, and then charged for it.

It was cold on the Great Wall, but the sky was clear and the sun warm. The Wall, happily, wasn’t too populated, and there were times when I walked for stretches entirely alone. Having nothing to do but put one foot in front of another and admire the view from the occasional vantage point, I thought about where I was, about North Korea, and about love in a hopeless place.

The pizza virgin
The day after my Great Wall expedition, I spent the whole day in bed, eating 5CNY bananas, drinking my dehydrosol sachets (kindly provided by my Young Pioneer Tour guides, who happened also to be doing relief work in the Philippines), reading The Lovely Bones and watching Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990). Taking a sick day wasn’t really how I wanted to be spending the start of the second leg of my Asian tour, but I figured I’d do my body a kindness and maybe it would do one back by making a full, speedy recovery.

Come that evening, I was feeling well enough to contemplate dinner. And maybe a spot of shopping. Fortunately, a fellow dorm-mate was in the mood for the same. Let’s call him Ben, because I don’t remember his name and even then I wasn’t able to properly pronounce it.

Ben was a 19 year old student from Xi’an who’d caught the train down to Beijing for a short holiday. Amazingly, he also happened to be a Taylor Swift fan and was astounded that I’d seen her in concert just a couple of months prior.

I had been fully prepared to brave the Beijing public bus system on my own, but with him, a Chinese speaker and reader, riding to our destination (some mall that I thought had a H&M store) was a breeze.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is a more fundamental need than new shoes, so Ben and I decided to grab dinner first. Because we were in Beijing and we had some of the finest Chinese food available to us, we chose to dine at Pizza Hut.

Following a period of food deprivation, I craved something familiar; hot, salty, cheesy. Ben was pretty obliging, and because he had never had pizza, I determined that we had to take care of that straight away. Part of the reason for why he’d never had it was because, as a poor student, he largely subsisted on cheap noodles. Pizza was a food he was aware of, but had never previously felt the urge to try.

We ordered two small pizzas to share and some watery fruit juice. Then Ben talked about what Xi’an was like, how it had shopping malls like the one we were in but he never went to them, preferring instead cheaper markets for his clothes; he told me about his older sister and his parents, all of whom he was close to. I regaled him with tales from North Korea and showed him photos of Pyongyang and Canberra on my phone.

I also drew his attention to the Chinglish sign reading ‘…exotica pizzas’ on the wall behind him and tried to explain why that was so funny. While Ben’s English was a hundred times better than my Mandarin, and despite the common belief that people’s first words in foreign languages are cuss words and the naughty, it was something of a challenge to elucidate the concept of “exotica”.

Our pizzas arrived and he delved in with none of the hesitation of a westerner sampling some Chinese food product they’ve never had before. After a couple of bites, I asked him how he liked it and he grinned at me and pronounced it delicious.

After dinner, we proceeded to try to track down H&M, which ended up being an odyssey and a half and a taxi ride away, given the shopping mall we were at turned out not to have a H&M store after all.

We returned to the hostel some three hours later. Bushed, I immediately began my nightly de-beautification routine and on re-entering my dorm room with freshly minted breath, found Ben lying in his bottom bunk watching a basketball game on his phone. After I put away my toiletries, I started to climb into bed, but then decided that I had one thing left to do before I went to sleep.

I shuffled over to Ben, a silly smile on my face. I proceeded to quietly but gaily sing the first few lines of Taylor Swift’s “Sparks Fly”. He laughed in recognition (and appreciation, I’d like to think). Then I bid him goodnight, went back to my own bed and turned my light out.

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One thought on “From Beijing, with love

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