I spent Winter 2007 in Beijing and that was my virgin journey to Asia too. One Sunday afternoon I boarded an Air China flight from London to Beijing, half drunk and not sure what I was doing. You see, I had this brilliant idea to buy the friend who drove me to the airport a couple of drinks to thank him for the ride. He was Russian; he could take a bit of drunk driving, but it turns out I couldn’t handle the intercontinental check in intoxicated. I was ordered by the airline to remove the extra luggage weight to avoid a hefty fee and in my blurry rush ( I was going to miss my flight apparently) I misplaced my ipod, books and all survival related gadgets, only to find myself half an hour later sitting lonely and confused in a ready to take off plane for the other side of the world. Still under the spell of white wine, I started crying.
The purpose of my trip was to improve my Mandarin language skills by taking a 3 month 7 hours per day intensive language course. Having already completed a one year Mandarin language course in London, I thought the knowledge in my Mandarin textbooks would be good enough to give me a sense of familiarity, but when I landed in Beijing 10 hours later, all jet lagged and flustered I felt like I had landed on another planet. Nothing I saw or experienced felt familiar in any way. Until then China was for me images picked up from Bruce Lee’s action movies, a combination of stereotyped China Town aesthetics with the occasional traditional architectural elements of pagodas here and there. I expected to see compact and “Europeanized” Hong Kong (which at the time I had never visited). Instead I found myself in a vast, chaotic smoggy megacity that at the time resembled an endless construction site: Highway after highway that connected eerily identical gated communities of residential towers, sprawled in a bare treeless land and keeping a very unfriendly distance from each other. The background noise night and day (and I mean all night) was that of construction drilling and sawing as new towers and gated communities sprang up.
As I was dropped by my airport guide at a spacious studio apartment on the 27th floor of one of these towers, dizzy and dehydrated, I had the disconcerting feeling that I had just landed in hell. I had no idea where and how to initiate my Chinese living experience as literally everything felt completely alien. For a person like me who had spent all her life in compact European cities, this was like exploring a new planet.
I remember walking outside, walking past the military dressed guards and seeing a big loitering crowd standing at the edge of the highway, watching. A young man approached me and spoke to me in Mandarin. I realized that unlike a listening exercise at my language school, his accent was hard to grasp and I could not understand what he was saying. I told him I needed to find a bank and a supermarket. He said he could drive me to both. I was so exhausted, muddled and my mouth burning with dehydration (the apartment had no water) that I went with him in his car. The man did as he said, took me to a cash point and waited until I got money and then he drove me to what it looked like a shopping mall. “The supermarket is here” he said and dropped me there. In my confusion and unspeakable relief to see a Carrefour in front of me, I forgot to ask him if he was a taxi driver and if he wanted money. He did not ask for any money though and just drove away.
After doing some shopping, I realized I had absolutely no idea how to get back. I did not even remember what “home” looked like. All the highways looked the same and all the gated communities were completely identical. My airport guide had provided me with a hand drawn map of where I lived. When I asked her for the exact street address, she had replied the place had no official address, just a name. It was already dark outside and I had started feeling panicky when some elderly Chinese couple approached me, “Where are you going”? They asked. I showed them the hand drawn map and they both nodded in recognition. “You are going the wrong way” they said “Your house in the other direction on your right hand side”.
I followed their advice. From the corner of my eye throughout my return home, I could see them walking on the other side of the pavement and silently keeping pace with me, making sure I got home alright.
In the next 3 cold Winter months that followed I got familiar with all the highways, bridges and underpasses of my “neighborhood”. I met lots of Beijing-ners and always made small talk with the taxi driver that drove me home. The conversation always started like that “Ni shi Meiguo ren?” (Are you American?) “Bu shi, Wo shi Xila ren” (No I am Greek). Xila ren! They replied always in astonishment. In the city of 20 million Chinese I was a rare species.
For me Beijing remained overwhelming, stripped of tradition when it came to aesthetics and architecture, but at the same time one of the most original places to experience China. I never really warmed up to its vastness, its impersonal highways and suffused with luxury, sanitized shopping malls, (Golden pillars hosting a paradise of Italian fashion, often accompanied with shocking sanitation facilities) which always contrasted with the loitering crowds and heavy smog outside. Its luxuries served however as a pleasant getaway from its harsh realities.
There was a lot to be explored, experienced and learnt. Looking back I would not change Beijing for anything. If you could scratch underneath its hard surface there was an incredible energy emanating from that megacity that was transforming, so quickly and miraculously, that its eagerness to move into the Future nurtured my mind and soul. It was inspiring. It was happening and it attracted young people from all over the world thirsty for its energy and vibe, proud to become witnesses to its transformation.