Beijing, China: I turned a corner only to be greeted by charmed giggles from a short distance away. A soft voice and a faintly deep one. As I moved closer mumbles turned into audible words, not that I could decipher the Chinese. A young couple. Silhouetted under the dim night lights was a girl sitting comfortably on the boy’s lap as he planted his lips on her cheeks. The lips, I felt, sunk in for seconds too long, but much to the girl’s delight. If they noticed my presence as I passed by it did not show. They were too lost in the moment. Existing in their own little perfect world. It was a cold night and I could feel the nippiness crawling into my skin. The young couple’s warm affection could do little to ease the cold.
I had just had dinner with friends when we came across the love birds. Their sight was only just one of the many heartwarming moments of my night escapades in Beijing, China.
Beijing, the capital city of one of the world’s most populous countries, needs no introduction. It can be just as enigmatic as it is popular, for visitors. From afar the buildings can almost kiss the clouds making for such an amazing view that once your eyes are fixed on the sight it’s difficult to let go.
A closer look reveals the strands of the buildings. The details of the structures reveal the thoughtfulness that went into their design. But others simply stood tall with nothing more to them. Some, old dilapidated and reduced to mere antiques. But all this is just a glimpse of the vast Beijing landscape. I still have until December (2018) to unravel the city and all that it has to offer.
My arrival in Beijing in late February marked the last chapter of the blistering cold. Early enough to feel the pinch but late enough for the full wrath of the freezing temperatures. I must admit it was rather difficult to find the charm of the city in such coldness. I would yearn to walk the sparkling-lit streets, brightened by the bands of tiny bulbs strapped on the trees that lined along the roads. It was the flickering lights on the tall buildings that truly accentuated the radiance of the streets. For many a night I’ve braved the cold and jaunted the streets but not long enough. As the cold continued to brush against my fragile skin it would slowly begin to grow numb. But once my hunger pangs kicked in, the cold took the backseat. My nights have now turned into culinary escapades to discover China’s food.
Finding a restaurant on the forking streets of Beijing was the easiest part because almost every street has varied options. From small to big, basic to fancy, unattractive to alluring. The harder part was ordering the food. This one night I was given a menu that had pictures of the food and underneath each were Chinese characters. I pointed at what I wanted but what followed was an exchange of a series of gestures and a conversation that lacked a common language. The precise meaning lost in translation. The pictures lacked in preparatory description. In between the daunting back and forth with different waitresses who tried their luck in decoding the English I was speaking, the only thing left to do was laugh. Only one remained as other waitresses found it overwhelming. Laughter became the only language we both understood. It at least assured us that we were getting somewhere which we did, eventually. She pointed to a dish on the menu, perhaps her preference, to which I nodded and without either of us expressing it verbally I knew it was a gesture that meant I had surrendered my choice in the way the meal should be prepared. Finally a bowl came to my table and inside it were thinly sliced noodles draped in thin brown soup on top of which were three finely cut pieces of beef and on the sides a measured amount of diced celery. One thing I’m yet to get used to is eating food in their steaming hotness. The Chinese do it with such ease. I’ve watched closely and admired the way they twirl the sweltering food around their mouth before they chew. It’s a skill I’m still, painfully, learning. Ordering food has in many instances been an adventure with some experiences more hopeless than others. None of the restaurants I’ve been to have provided me with fork and knife I am used to back home. My chopstick skills get better with every meal. On many a night the food has layered my stomach with such warmth that sometimes made me home sick. The taste and aroma of China’s food remain a constant surprise. And the people, I guess.
There was one particular surprise. Dusk had just fallen and I was on my way to the supermarket when I met two sociable Chinese men who stopped me for a talk. I delightfully granted them my attention to at least demystify the constant stares I seem to attract from the locals. If you are wondering what language was used it was a combination of crudely basic English and gestures. Soon after one of them pointed to a nearby hotel and with gestures that would be hard for me to explain he asked that we spend a night together. I politely declined the invitation, and believe it or not, in Chinese. Good thing I had learnt how to say ‘no’.
While they maintain a serious demeanor during the day I have watched the Chinese morph into sociable beings at dinner. Their facial expressions and postures displaying a contradictory affable nature. Different dishes served in numerous bowls and saucers usually filled the tables and from each the many hands would dip their chop sticks to place the food on the plates in front of them. Animated conversations would spring across tables as they… ‘poke’ in. It is almost as if a switch has been turned on inside them. Got me thinking what the conversations were about. In a country of 1.4 billion people much remains to be unveiled. Goodbye for now.