China’s Number Three

China's Number Three
Beijing, China

Beijing, China


Last night somewhere in Beijing, I can’t exactly say where, I was eating fried cicada pupae off a wooden skew and dancing in a private karaoke room with a couple of very attractive young women in their late twenties from Harbin. I was in the tow of Gao Shan, in his late thirties, whose name literally means ‘High Mountain’, but who is a very vertically-challenged teacher from the provincial back blocks southeast of Beijing. I was having a ball, but our constant re-calculations of the deadline for my subway run to the airport were making me a little nervous. Earlier that morning I’d arrived off the Airport Shuttle into somewhere amidst the smog enshrouded downtown area of Beijing. The culture shock of coming from Siberia and Russia’s Far East was suddenly marked in my nervous system. People. And Urban jungle. And Smog! Various brands of police stood to noticeable attention on all street corners. When I asked them for directions to Tienanmen Square noone seemed to know. I was sure it was a conspiracy, similar to the Google search earlier in the morning for Tienanmen Square coming up blocked (see previous blog entry). I bought a one yuan icy pole from an old lady on the corner and walked up a side street in hope of finding a sign. I got a good lead from a young agricultural student and headed in a new direction. By this time streams of sweat were running off my brow and coursing uncomfortably down the small of my back. And I could feel the particulates in the air being hydro-statically bound to my body’s exuding moisture. I wandered into a temple opposite Tienanmen Square, more for want of escaping the traffic and smog and finding some shade. After paying the three yuan I discovered some comfort in the shade of some 600-1000 year old cypress trees, planted here during various dynasties’ reigns. The aimlessness of my gait must have caught Gao Shan’s attention. He bowed his head sideways as I walked by and with a huge bespectacled smiling face asked me where I was from. I didn’t give any particular attention to his immediate offer of assistance. But as he accompanied me he was in fact quite the gold mine of local information. He’s a teacher of Chinese literature in his small provincial town. But he was also a little eccentric. His English pronunciation wasn’t always the best and so he had this endearing habit of spelling his words, mid-sentence as he spoke. Sometimes he got the spelling wrong too. But he was so confident of his spelling that he refused to be corrected by me, more for the fact that he wasn’t always aware that I was in fact giving him the correct spelling and pronunciation. It became very humorous. “Dis is from da emperor’s reign and is da alter – A-L-T-A-R – of the god of land and green – G-R-E-I-N”, he’d say in earnest. I would be confused but eventually we’d establish he meant ‘grain’, which he was both misspelling and mispronouncing. “Ho, ho”, he’d laugh in his little jolly half-bent over fashion, “You are very intelligent man!” I’d told him that I was writing a blog of sorts and that I was a musician too. Two things that seemed to define me better on my Cornwall to Kamchatka odyssey On went the afternoon with his sentences constantly punctuated by his little spelling antics. The Forbidden City had closed for the day and so he took me to the second Forbidden City, just a interesting he said. But such was the heat and fatigue that I suggested I might shout him to a Chinese tea ceremony. I didn’t know what to expect but it was much much more than I ever dreamed. Just behind the Forbidden City was Emperor’s Lane. Gao Shan told me as we walked up the moat that the Emperor’s Lane houses back onto, he pointed out the heavily fortified house of China’s Number Three Leader – the leader of the People’s Congress. It was on this street a few houses up that Gao Shan found us a tea house. Ushered into an ornate little room replete with gnarly old peach root cut and polished to serve as the ritual’s preparation table, our young host, Nana, presided. We tasted in specific order eleven amazing and delicious teas. And with Gao Shan’s interpretation I learnt alot of the cultural significance and medicinal properties of them all. The tea ceremony was a delightful ceremony taking me and my jolly ever-spelling-his-English-words companion through eleven special teas, complete with their benefits and their cultural meaning. It was good to have Gao Shan (High Mountain) there to translate. I was taught how to hold my tiny tea cuplet like a man should hold it. And as we sat before the Nana, the pouring girl, I admired the huge contorted and polished peach root that served as the ritual tea preparation table that separated us. And after an afternoon of wondering around Tienanmen Square and the second Forbidden City in the smog and fug, the humidity and mugginess, with an ever present Gao Shan giving me interpretation in a harmless but slightly eccentric fashion, it was a relief to find this little tea house on Emperor Street, and rest in an air-conditioned ornate tea room, complete with incongruous flat screens, karaoke consoles and cordless microphones ready to go. Being so close to the Number Three’s heavily body-guarded place of residence would explain why later, when I was really embracing the karaoke session that ensued with vocal and gesticulate gusto, that the police and China’s Number Three Leader’s body guards came knocking and telling the little girls who stood by outside our private room for us to keep it down. We’d been told. After the tea ceremony had turned into a slightly off-the-rails karaoke session, Gao Shan was under my constant insistence and instruction to get me back to a subway station in order to get back to Beijing International for my post-midnight red-eye budget flight to Singapore. But my constant distractions in the packed hawker streets was proving hard for poor Gao Shan. And when I quite randomly saw two attractive girls, one attempting to ride pillion on the back of a push bike with her friend, coming up past me from behind on the crowded food-hawkers mall full of fried reptiles, amphibians and insects, I thought nothing of it to strike up a conversation. As chance would have it they spoke good English and were out of for a fun night. I was about to ditch the cicada pupae (which I think gave me the runs at a very inopportune time later that evening rushing to make my flight after a last-minute dash in a taxi to an of-site hotel for a shower and change was required!), despite the good protein source that they were as Gao Shan told me: they were too pungent, acridly and intensely sweet all at the same time. Almost made me shiver when I ate them. But Xi Lin, the lovely 26 year old from Harbin liked them and we shared the rest. Soon I was assuming control of the bike from her friend Anqi, and with my backpack worn on my chest and Li Xin holding on ever so delicately around my waist, I was ringing the bell, pedaling exaggeratedly and steering erratically through the crowded mall. “I need a beer to wash these cicadas down”, I said over my shoulder to a smiling Li Xin. After some crazy bike riding, we went to an upstairs bar somewhere and soon the four of us were singing, dancing in a private karaoke room. I think the young socially-awkward and married Gao Shan felt a bit left out but it was all harmless good fun. I was having a ball, but their constant re-adjustments of the deadline by which we should leave to get me to the airport continued to make me somewhat nervous. Finally we headed off in a rush, after another debacle over the billed amount. I said goodbye to Gao Shan, a good fellow. And the girls accompanied me to a subway station closer to airport where I could then get a taxi. The subway link to the Beijing Airport was now closed for the evening. I was starting to fret. The girls raced around in the dark at the exit to the subway station. All around men were in huddles in the dark. Above us a raised concrete highway towered. ‘We must get you a taxi with a metre”, exclaimed Li Xin, “That way you’ll have less problem at the other end” They finally found a driver with a metered taxi and I lept in. As it headed off I wound the window down to bid these midnight angels good night and good bye. I had just under an hour before check-in closed when the taxi, whose driver wasn’t satisfied with the metered fare and the tax stamps he’d thrown on to the dash to increase it a few more yuan, pulled three cars deep up to the curb. I had to argue my case and even write it down for him how much change I demanded. He gave me the correct change and then shouted for me to get out of his taxi. The JetStar budget flight check-in closed at 01:15 local time. It was nearly half past twelve. As I raced toward the check-in counters, the fried cicacda pupae had worked on my system too fast and I was in urgent need of a shower and change of clothes. So after grabbing my left luggage I raced downstairs to the Hourly Lounge hotel. But it was booked out. People lurking around here offered me another hotel room but it was off the airport site. They offered to drive me there and back within the 40 minutes I had left. I haggled and got them down from AUD$200 to AUD$40. And so it was that I commenced a race into the unknown and into the smog of the night. It was a highly stresseful run. And the claim that it was less than ten minutes away was starting to cause additional panic. I was screwed thought I. But after just over ten minutes we did arrive at the more costly hotel. Urgency consumed me. I lugged all my bags in to the room. And showered in lightning speed. The clean change of clothes was gratifying but I was filled with fear and loathing. Back at the reception desk waving my credit card, shaking heads all concurred: no credit card mister! So I pointed at the driver, who I knew was in cahoots with the hotel, and said I’ll pay you at the airport. And so we rushed back there, and the driver raced in after me to the nearest airport ATM. I slapped the filthy lucre into his sweaty palms and I was off racing my trolley to an as yet uncertain future. I was eight minutes shy of missing my plane when I rushed from the hotel-run taxi. But I made it to the deserted JetStar check-in area just in the nick of time. The commercial and cut-throat voracity of all the merchants I encountered on this hot and steamy afternoon and evening in Beijing was a shock to my post-Siberian system. While a little brusque at times the treatment by Russian merchants was never overbearing nor dodgy nor under-handed. Encountering the bare-faced nature of it in Beijing amounted to being the strongest case of ‘culture shock’ on my ‘Cornwall to Kamchatka’ odyssey. Despite that my serendipitous Beijing friends were a wonderful expression of life in this big fug of a city!


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