Adventures in Beijing

About two years ago, I was sent to Beijing to cover an acrobatic troupe. I wasn't that thrilled to go there because it was right after the SARS epidemic, and there were rumblings that it was coming back.

Still, it was fascinating to be in the land of my ancestors. I've never been to China up to that point.

The first thing I saw before landing in Beijing was the desert.

After some mountains we saw the city. According to our guide, Beijing is a rather dusty city thanks to the winds that regularly bring the dust from the desert into the city. As a result, most people build windows around their apartment balconies.

Beijing is a big city. In fact, a lot of its buildings are big, probably to cater for the huge population. The train station was just massive, and one could get really lost there. Imagine my utter sadness when I found a building which houses a 5-storey bookstore, and 95% of the books I couldn't read! (I can't read Chinese. Sniff.)

We were brought to the Great Wall of China - or rather, a portion of it. If you could ignore the commercial bits (the selling of cheap trinkets in a corner here and there) one realises that it was amazing being there, knowing one is standing on hundreds of years of history,
that it was there since the days of the first Emperor of China, Shi Huang Ti (or Zhing She Huang, as it is in Mandarin).

Typically, I morbidly wondered if there were any bodies buried in the wall portion I was standing on.

I remember touching the stones - it was icy cold (it was winter then). And then looking up from one of the "towers" and spying portions of the Wall snaking along the mountains far away. It was an awesome sight to say the least.

But the funny thing about being a semi-banana Chinese* in China is that you look like everyone else (except that you got a great tan) but you can't speak the language.

Sure I speak Hokkien, but my Hokkien is a bastardised version with some Malay words and idioms in it, so the folks won't understand me. My mandarin is so-so, but sometimes I get brain freeze and forget my vocabulary!

One thing you've got to be ready when you're in China is the state of its toilets. I hear that it has improved and will continue to improve thanks to the coming Olympics, but it will nevertheless still shock you.

It was torture walking around Beijing city. I had to "tahan" (hold it) a lot because some of the toilets had no doors! No, I'm not kidding you. People just do it in the open. I remember being in that five-storey bookstore, pretty sure that a modern building will have a clean toilet, only to be confronted with a clean toilet ... with no doors! Sometimes people will share toilets too. It's just ... alien, you know? :P

I remember when a friend and I were waiting for the toilet to be available. Two people came out, so we thought there were two cubicles inside. Instead, there were two squatting toilets in a room. You're supposed to "share" the room. My friend got so horrified she refused to go inside!

Then there are the baby clothes. While in the Forbidden City (which you have to visit when you're there) we spied many babies toddling around with their ... genitals exposed. It's most weird. Bizzare. They will be wearing chic outfits, but they have this hole around their privates. Again, another culture shock.

The Forbidden City (right) is probably the best place to visit while in Beijing. It is absolutely massive and I swear you need a day (or two) to visit it. When I went there, I could only explore the Western area of the place. It took us five hours to explore the area!

Yes, it was luxurious, but I can't help but think - as I look at the gold-plated and carved ceiling of the Emperor's room - that it was a luxurious prison.

The concubines were housed in this housing complex, and because of their status, they can only sleep on narrow beds barely big enough for you to turn around in. The Empress Dowager's room was grander, and it was bizzare to know that one of the most powerful women stayed there once.

There was a special man-made mountain there, where fountains bubbled and stairs were carved inside it. There, the concubines could amuse themselves. Darn, that's what people did pre-TV days!

Beijing is indeed very urban, with lots of shiny modern buildings. As with every urban place, it suffers from jams. Baaaad jams. I partly wonder if it's caused by the many suicidal cyclists in Beijing. They would put the New Yorker cycling messaging services to shame.

There I was, in the car, patiently waiting for the light to turn green. And from across the five-lane expressway (the roads are also massive) a cyclist comes charging at us. Just before he is about to hit us, he veers to the right, breezed past a few cars and was on his way to goodness knows where - against traffic, mind you.

And I honestly hope that the people of Beijing has given up the spitting habit - though I honestly don't think so. They spit in rubbish bins, they spit on the road. Every minute while I was in the city, someone would spit nearby. It drove me utterly wild. I wanted to turn around and scream: "Don't you realise SARS is transmitted this way?!"

Well, I had a good time in Beijing - but it was torture as well on account of the toilets. The pinnacle of the trip had to be visiting the Forbidden Palace. It just made me realise how part of this land I was.

PS: Did I also mention that there were a lot of cute men in uniforms everywhere?

* semi-banana Chinese: A "banana" Chinese is a Chinese person who can't speak a word of Chinese. I'm semi; I speak two dialects, but not very well!