Before routine sets in and erases the trail of emotions this Beijing 2012 adventure brought me, I thought I’d note this down, starting from the end.
Just the morning before, I stood in line to board the plane home, sneaking those last few WeChat texts before I lost the wifi signal. The warmth from these new friends cut deeper than the morning chill and my flu. So through the sneezes and the tissue-plastered nose, I was red-eyed and sobbing. What a disease-ridden person I must have looked.
虽然心里是有一万个舍不得， 但“最美好的东西并不是永恒”。And I know, these are precious precisely because they don’t last.
I did not expect to make friends I feel so much for after 5, 6 days. And though I can make a case for it in theory, it still moves me. I am reminded repeatedly of this article I once read about solo travel, that although you have to keep your guard up and bad things do happen, the author has depended on the kindness of strangers to get him out of the most difficult situations.
I have met ungracious and unhelpful people along the way, but in those 11 days, I have also met strangers who pointed me to the right way with a warm smile, walked me to my destination, laughed with me, told me stories, for nothing other than my smile and gratitude. And the most precious of all — strangers who became friends, shared things with me, tolerated my bad Mandarin and ignorance, planned a search mission when they lost me, waited for me, accompanied me to Tianjin for one night because I’m afraid of hotels, made sure I was safe and well.
And so, briefly for memory’s sake, the main characters in my Beijing story: 万丽, 林虹, 刘加, 学艺
Day 4: I met 万丽 at the entrance of 故宫 while trying to snap a photo of my head covering half the roof of the entrance. I was squinting at my phone to make sure my head was indeed there when she said behind me, “你一个人吗？那帮我拍一张，我也帮你。” something along those lines. And just like that, we were friends–getting unnecessarily excited at famous spots in those 古装片 (especially that long backdoor lane where evil concubines punished other concubines, maids and eunuchs), sharing stories, looking vainly for the 冷宫 where forgotten concubines slowly went mad–just strolling and chatting.
Beijing was her last stop in a month-long backpacking around China. She had just come from Lhasa, Tibet, with traces of cornrow frizz on her head and aladdin pants, a grounded disposition and a light step. I loved her 潇洒 attitude right from the start. When she tells stories about parts of China’s history, you hear the emotional engagement that, I think, is so rare for someone who didn’t even live through that.
Day 5: 林虹 has been in my 10-bed dorm for 2 or 3 days before we got talking. Actually through this (rather annoying) guy in our dorm I was trying to put in touch with 万丽 because they both wanted to go to Great Wall.
For such a sweet and wholesome young girl, she has a rather interesting job (that I think many people I know would love to do). She does postgraduate research in tobacco quality. How cool is that?!
Day 6: And I got to know 刘加 when 林虹 brought her Uni mates to dinner with us. Over the last few days, 刘加 was strangely the person I got to know best and he’s not even a fellow backpacker! He works in Beijing doing medical equipment sales and only joins us at night. (Although he has skipped work once to go to 颐和园 and 香山 with us.)
There’s something a little sad about him. He’s kind of a reformed 小混混 and even making it to Uni is a surprise to everyone around him. I feel like that long road back to normalcy has strengthened him and yet closed off a part of him. That’s well and good because it has made him steadier but a little too…phlegmatic and probably less disposed to happiness.
My best memory is singing the 还珠格格 theme song “当” at the top of our lungs on the “cable car” (that is really just a chairlift) down the mountain, in the still, pitch-black silence, scared shitless and shivering in the biting cold of the wind. And totally screaming when the car stopped midway. I was thinking about Frozen, the whole time.
Day 7: This is a legit 书生。I can totally imagine 学艺 climbing mountains and trekking through forests in the old days to get to “京城” to 考状元 and become a minister. He’s such an old soul.
He’s hostel-hopping around Beijing with just a small backpack that he carries everywhere (he’s in military school, figures) and the one night he was in our dorm, he barged into our conversation about…some war. I can’t remember.
Anyway, I love that about Chinese youths. At least the ones I’ve met – they’re so passionate and so indignant for their country. And generally politically aware. Also, cultured, polite and respectful.
And he calls me 姑娘。It’s so…proper, I often smile when I think about that.
I did honestly go to Beijing with an open mind, well aware of people’s prejudices but determined to make my own of it. Still, I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. But I never imagined I would fall so hard in love with the city and its people. The worst of them, and the best – all her contradictions.
The trains so crowded that you can’t see the floor and the liberation of squeezing carelessly through the hordes. The selfish survival attitude and the loyal, communal spirit. The cold, steely exterior, broken with a smile and soft tone. The brash shouting, never taken to heart.
In Beijing, you never have to tread carefully, you can be as abrasive as you want or as gentle as you like. And that’s what I love about it.