“I have a dream”. I know you’ve heard this before.
Equality and civil rights are matters that weigh immensely on my heart. However, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I have a recurring dream. I dream about flying and discovering, about planes and trains, road trips and hikes. Covid has blocked the world out for almost all of us. Travel is now a reminisced luxury.
I love to travel. It is among my top three favorite things to do. I believe traveling makes my heart bigger. Humility, interests and cultural curiosity are things that grow profusely when I’m in a different environment. Sure, I appreciate five-star massages, fancy resorts which are all inclusive and everything else that make up luxurious and anxiety-free trips. This said, my preference is to really immerse myself in a world that is completely different from what I know. These locations present to me a new world and its heart beats to a different language, with a distinct culture surrounded by landscapes I have never seen and colorful currencies I don’t recognize.
Since none of us can go anywhere, I would love to tell you about the furthest place I have ever seen.
The second biggest city worldwide with over 21 million residents, Beijing was a dream of mine and I pictured it being a big city. This trip wasn’t going to be about relaxation and soaking in nature’s beauty. At the time, the largest city I had visited was Cairo and it was at ranked 22nd on the list. If Beijing was as large as they said it was, I knew I’d feel immersed.
First, let’s talk facts. Beijing, also referred to as Peking, is a northern city located in China. Its airport is said to be, by passenger traffic, the second busiest worldwide. Recognized to hold the highest number of billionaires and Fortune Global 500 companies: Beijing stacks dollars. It also presents sleek and modern architecture that contrast with many grand, old and traditional buildings. Beijing has been an integral part of China’s history over the past eight centuries, and nearly every major building has at least one piece of historical significance. China’s capital certainly has good brains, no doubt. The city is blessed with great universities, a strong economy and several different beliefs that are practiced around the nation: Buddhism, China’s folk religion known as Taoism, Islam and Christianity. Between its hutongs (residential alleys) and its community parks: people gather at different times to practice tai chi everyday.
After I scouted locations to visit, I picked up a “Quickly Learn Mandarin “ the travel edition, got the necessary travel visa and packed my bags. I was going to be celebrating the Chinese New Year within the city and was eager to experience it! I kept picturing the big city, the thrills, the shopping, the crowds and the Great Wall. I was all in.
It would take all 24 hours of a day and 6 more to travel there. I made sure to carry several books, playlists of music, snacks, patience and cultivate gratefulness. I was positive this was going to be a unique trip. I knew that I would be traveling by subway for most outings. An affordable and rapid transit.Accessible at a specific airport terminal, I assure you… The subway transit is bananas. B -A -N -A -N- A -S! Shake off any concept of Western transit that you know. This is astronomical. This subway consists of 24 lines culminating in a total of 428 stations. It extends 727 km across 12 urban and suburban districts and requires a full body and bag scan to enter. It’s efficient, yet confusing and it’s magnificent.
I could tell you about Mutianyu’s Great Wall, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square or maybe the Forbidden City, the wondrous hutongs and the Temple of Heaven. However I suggest that you take the time to google any of those landmarks to find recent pictures, its actual geographic location and the detailed history. What I would like to share with you are the emotional experiences of these places…
Overwhelmed is the first word that comes to mind. Stepping out for the first time onto the streets of Beijing, a vast labyrinth of high rises, its busy streets and different city noises is overwhelming. All the boards and signs around me are spelled in the mandarin alphabet. Breathe. One minute. I reminded myself to relax and embrace the unknown. It was quite a headache to navigate and find my way to my lodging location. I arrived way later than expected. Oh well. It was too late to go back out. I then showered and reviewed my planned itinerary for the first week. My first couple days in Beijing are planned around the desire to visit different neighborhoods, soak in the Beijing vibe, check out the Great Wall, overturn the jetlag and eat some Wonton soup. Huh! Silly me.
The temperature in mid February is nice. It’s crisp enough to need a coat but definitely not “Canadian cold”. It varies between 0 to 5 Celsius. During my outings, I tried to interact with the people I met and I connected mostly with travelers or immigrants in Beijing. One thing I learned is that: Beijing WORKS. I mean like all day, every day. The elders stood on their tired feet from morning to dusk. The youngsters hustled all day to make it and everyone had somewhere to be or something to do. The spoken language is Mandarin. English is mostly only spoken by people who work with other English speakers.
During my 20 day stay: I visited the Forbidden city, the Temple of Heaven, the legendary Great Wall, Tiananmen square and the Summer palace. These visits were rich in history and they revealed so many beautiful sceneries which reminded me that in the end—we are all the same. Every nation has experienced suffering, has gifts from the Earth’s soil and has built landmarks we celebrate as legacies. Still today, my memory of these visits radiate a feeling of admiration with a tint of humility. I remember observing these landmarks knowing I could only appreciate them for a limited amount of time. Every site I visited was exactly what you would expect: populated and memorable. Tourists were always present but I am also surprised to recognize that a large number of Chinese natives were visiting as well.
For the first five days, I wanted to experience an authentic Beijing experience and I stayed with a Beijing woman that I had found on Airbnb. Several times when in her home, I reminded myself that we all live differently. I focused on the hospitality instead of the small disturbances. I adapted, I cultivated gratitude and I tried not to be too attached to my usual home comforts. I showered on top of the toilet, lived with different cleaning habits from mine and discovered that most bed mattresses there were preferred to be very stiff, which is not for everyone. Most importantly the host was a bright lady who was very welcoming and sweet. On Chinese New Year, I woke up excited to step outside hoping to follow every minute’s inspiration. . My plans quickly flop. Not Christmas, not Sunday, not Saturday and actually no day of the year except Chinese New Years day – businesses are closed. No mall, no food, no attraction, no park, nada-niet-nothing. I ended up in a popular hotel to get something to eat while I listened to the fireworks outside. The hotel staff explained to me that most Beijing natives leave the city to visit their families who live out of the metropolitan area and its high costs. Oh well. I walked for some time in different residential neighborhoods till I returned home to rest.
Beijing Hutongs were probably my favorite gem. They are simple, in questionable shape, tranquil and provide a window in the backyards of peoples homes. Here I found myself witnessing more of the authentic flavor I thrive for, catching an aroma coming out of a kitchen window or witnessing a couple cleaning their back door. I followed tips from past travelers that I found on the internet concerning eating references. I didn’t mind the actual eating space or levels of cleanliness, but the menus were deceiving. Not what I expected: noodles and rice or noodles with rice. No Wonton soup, no rolls, or thick veggies. I vowed to buy a cookbook and learn to make spring rolls.
Shopping in Beijing is necessary. From fancy couture to well made copies and impressive electronics: the choices flow. In most stores, sales clerks were pressing and the body language spoken was business and please get straight to the point. I enjoyed shopping and observing people interact, seeing locals grabbing a snack and stopping or taking pictures of popular mall kiosks. Most kiosks owners were comical and amusing. I then traveled about 2 hours outside the city to visit a piece of the Great wall, which made me feel a great deal of satisfaction. Caressing the wall, I thought about all the history, about all the lives these bricks have impacted. For a long time, I climbed the wall as it followed China’s mountainous scenery with amazement and contentment thinking “Wow, here I am.”
During the second week, I went to a Chinese Theater and watch a Shaolin show: a mixed performance that displays eye-popping athleticism, impressive martial artistry and some fair acting . The days passed, I visited a body spa, shopped in local markets and went downtown.
I continued my efforts for the optimal Wonton quest. Every opportunity given, I consulted menus and waiters. Qing! – or Please! “Where may I find broth and dumplings, large or small, vegetarian or not?” It’s no question, I was clear and transparent about my search, yet still no Wonton, no General Tao, no Pad Thai, no sushi, no “North American Chinese or Asian” food. Obviously, my quest was meant to fail.
My trip continued successfully though: I walked in the Forbidden city, I visited its buildings and parks. I also visited Tiananmen square while reflecting on the grace of living in a democratic world. I travelled to the Summer palace and the Temple of Heaven with a local guide. She shared her passion and knowledge in a contagious manner. I love history. I wish I could have learned more. Eventually, time sank through the hourglass… I finally got some decent sleep but soon it was time to go…
I had a dream, a Beijing dream: it happened and now I truly believe that dreams can come true.