by Jacob Jarvis
The smog, the heat, the traffic, the language barrier, the transport systems – no matter how many travel books you read before you set off to China, nothing will truly prepare you for any of these.
I spent five days in Beijing for my first stop in the East and at first I was pretty appalled by how many people spat all over the street, now I honestly just feel sorry for them. I’ve been out of the capital for two days now and I’m only just losing the hefty smokers cough I developed during my time there.
Before you go to any points of cultural interest, the first sight your met with is the air itself. It’s almost like a permanent layer of brown fog masking the entirety of the city and, whilst you’re there, it’s impossible to avoid. The putrid pollution teamed with temperatures of thirty degrees and upwards makes it tempting to become a stowaway in your hostel, with the cool embrace of air-conditioning and windows to seal out the pollution.
The first truly daunting experience you’ll probably have is simply crossing the road. Just because the light is green, doesn’t mean the cars will actually stop. The taxis almost definitely won’t, nor will the mopeds. My advice, look for someone who seems to know what they’re doing and tail them. After a few near death moments, where you might feel like an extra in The Italian Job, you’ll get used to it.
On day one my flight arrived into the airport at 2:00am. After sleeping on the flight and my body clock feeling completely out of sync, thanks to 19 hours of travel and a layover in Kiev, all I wanted was sleep. Instead my travel companion and I decided to power through and visited Lama Temple.
We stayed at Dragon King Hostel (nice enough, clean, pretty decent bar, slightly pricey for China) which was a few minutes’ walk from Zhanglizhong subway station. The Lama Temple was just one stop away so we decided to walk, which gave us the chance to explore the hutongs, side streets, along the way. These little microcosms all huddle together to create the distinct and vibrant communities in the area. Hundreds of shops vie for your attention and custom, each with its own charms or, politely put, eccentricities. If you want authentic food or something obscure to eat, these are the places to go.
If I learned anything from the first temple I visited it’s this; no matter how many Buddhas you see, there’s always a bigger one. Every room was covered in gold paraphernalia surrounding a giant statue of the Sage in varying forms and sizes. At first I was in awe of those around ten feet high, then there was one round four times as tall, endlessly ascending into the purpose built roof which homed it.
Inside the halls I felt like an intruder, but was welcomed to join in with burning incense and paying respect along with the those there for religious reasons as well. Until I showed myself up for the ignorant Brit I am and held up the wrong number of incense sticks in front of a statue – prompting a startled looking Chinese lady to come to a halt, point at me, and squeal, “three!” I had originally had the correct number, but my friend had taken one, so this unfortunately prompted the ridiculous response of, “my mate nicked one,” and me pointing at him. This wouldn’t have been my most eloquent moment in England, so, as you can imagine, here it went down absolutely abysmally. The woman walked on, and I shuffled off.
Thankfully since then I’ve learned the Mandarin word for sorry. I’m sure I’ll say it plenty more times in the coming month.