Having never been to the Taj Mahal, I found myself at another wonder over Easter. V and I used to long holiday to nip over the border to China. Or rather, to fly four and a half hours to Beijing.
In order to take this break, I had to work like a dog for the two weeks leading up to it and practically right up to the last minute that we left for the flight. In the rush, I forgot my book and against my better judgement didn’t buy one at the airport so had withdrawal syndrome on the flight. It’s strange how excrutiatingly four hours seems when you don’t have a book with you.
We landed in Beijing to a chill – other than that all airports are beginning to look alike. Except airports in India which persist in being ugly, disorganized and dirty. V and I had decided to be adventurous/thrifty and take the airport shuttle to town instead of the taxi. Kind of amazing how easy and organized it is. We just had to follow the signs, buy the tickets, load our stuff in and take our seats.
Beijing traffic is insufferable. We were stuck on the expressway for nearly 40 minutes which kind of took the novelty our of the sights. These included trees shivering in the cold, and the construction of a railway line and lines of cars of indigenous make peppered with Volkswagens.
When we finally hit the city I was struck by two impressions – Chicago and Paris. The buildings are on average 10 storeys tall with the kind of glazed brick facades typical of Chicago and sometimes NY while the roads had the broad grandeur of Paris – basically, a city built for armies to march through.
When we alighted, we were ambushed by touts, which was to be the fixture everywhere we went. But the touts speak English and are so friendly, you actually feel kind of bad to shrug them off. It’s kind of novel to say you’re from India and for people to still look friendly. We seem to have chosen our hotel well because it was really three minutes from Beijing station and was choc-a-bloc with white tourists which is generally a good sign. The room was basic but had everything we needed. We didn’t end up spending much time in there anyway.
The first evening we went to Wang Fu Jiang. It was a 15 minute walk from our hotel and to get there we had to walk through Oriental Plaza, a massive mall that is like a HK mall – full of premier brands – only five times larger. A friend of mine from the office (who reprimanded me for not telling me I was going to Beijing earlier and who then proceeded to write down the names of all the places I should see in Chinese so I could ask for directions easily) had told me this area was like Mong Kok (only people who have been to Mong Kok will get what I mean). I don’t really see the resemblance, though it is like a lower market shopping area but because the roads are so wide, you don’t really see the kind of throngs that Mong Kong attracts. The shops tend to be quite local – there was a hat store and a fur shop. My favourite find was the Foreign Language Book Store which is the best bookstore I have seen this side of Asia. Or maybe it was just my withdrawal symptoms talking. I went fairly crazy in there with V shadowing me and trying to get me to buy the first thing I saw.
We had to ask for directions to find the restaurant my friend had recommended. We were struck my the diference between Honkys and the Chinese. The guy spoke better English than I have ever heard from a local in HK and was twice as friendly. He even said, “I wish you find the place you are looking for”. (V pointed out the difference between India and China where in India, direction givers are likely to say something like: “Boss, you can’t miss it… you’ll definitely find it” but anway, it’s better than a Honky’s uncomprehending/unfriendly stare).
The restaurant turned out to be Muslim Lamb Hot Pot. It seemed to be very popular with the locals and we pretty much proved that we didn’t know what we were doing. It’s pretty standard hot pot but with thin slices of lamb. To be honest, not my kind of thing but an experience anyway. I think the problem was that we didn’t know how to ask for chilli sauce. We also ordered Chinese wine which is the most potent stuff – impossible to drink more than one tiny glass.
After dinner we walked around the area, ending up in a massive toy store. I ended up buying a panda puppet for my new niece before heading home.