On top of the world

On top of the world

Travel tales

On top of the world

When an opportunity came my way for a short business trip to China, I did not lose a moment to say “Yes!”. I wanted to explore and experience this mystical land. The trip shattered a lot of myths and perceptions I had about this great country — that the Chinese are not friendly with Indians; they are reserved; they cannot speak English and you will have to use sign language; the cuisine is unpalatable so carry some food from India and so on.

My first tryst in China was with the immigration folks at the Beijing airport. I cleared the process in just 10 seconds, with no questions asked! This was unbelievable given our neighbour’s ‘not so friendly’ status.

When I entered the city, it was almost like any American mega-city in terms of infrastructure. In Bengaluru, every signboard has words in local languages besides English but in China, every foreign brand had signs only in English. However, I did face some challenges while communicating with the sales girls. When street shopping, don’t forget to bargain — if the price quoted  for three scarves is RMB 100, you can probably get 12 instead after bargaining. I paid a heavy price for not having bargaining skills. Most goods and services are cheaper there so it is fun to shop.

     I also had a good Chinese foot and back massage at one of the shopping malls. It was very relaxing and the masseurs kept me busy with a lot of questions about India.
My first actual interaction with the country happened at a workshop I conducted (for work). I asked some of the people about their perception of India, and in jest, I was told that they were educated about the ‘Indian Stretchable Time’ or our penchant to not be punctual! They were also aware of the famous Indian head nod, wherein a shake from left to right could mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’! But they had huge respect for Indians, who are assumed to be smart. They also love our Bollywood movies (‘3 Idiots’ was a huge hit in China) and of course, our cuisine.

The next day, I planned a trip with my Irish colleague to Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. Both are located about five kms from the hotel we were staying at but it took us 30 minutes to reach because of heavy traffic.

    Beijing is known for its traffic even during non-peak hours. It was freezing cold even at 2 pm and the sky was murky with heavy smog. The pollution level in Beijing is perhaps the highest in China. We then made a quick dash to the Forbidden City, which is  huge. It normally takes about two to three hours to cover it but I planned to spend just an hour since we also wanted to visit the Temple of Heaven.

The Temple of Heaven had closed by the time we reached at 4 pm. But we were allowed to see the gardens adjoining it.

     The journey by subway was very interesting. The ticket price is subsidised by the government and it’s the cheapest form of transport in Beijing. I did not see many public buses but they do have three-wheeled cabs, just like our autos, but less of an environmental hazard. Even there, you need to bargain with the auto drivers and most of them do not understand English (except for the numbers). However, every sign on the road is in English and hence, I had absolutely no difficulty whatsoever.

Next day, I set out for the Great Wall of China on the Badaling side. An English-speaking guide accompanied me during the trip; he was well-informed about India and Indian politics. Since I had a flight to catch in the afternoon, I planned for this trip very early in the morning.

     I reached the site at 8 am, when there are hardly any tourists. The steps to the Great Wall are steep and it really saps your energy. Once at the top, you feel like you are on top of the world! Avoid shopping in the vicinity as they charge really exorbitant rates for their goods. After climbing for about one hour, I started the descent, which is even tougher.

Post this, it was time for me to say goodbye to the beautiful country that is shrouded in mystery. Our cultures are so similar — we are both family-oriented people yet we differ on one thing — our love for our language. In India, it has become a fashion of sorts to speak only English while ignoring our local language or even our mother tongue.

Also, the Chinese keep their city clean and have an excellent traffic sense. Although it is the most populous country in the world, I rarely saw a large crowd except at tourist spots. The infrastructure is also something; I was really bowled over by the roads, flyovers, subway system and more.

The Beijing skyline must be mentioned. The office and residence buildings stand next to each other. Since I visited the city in autumn, I could not gauge the greenery but I could see a lot of trees and vegetation within the city limits.

I am hoping that one day we will work together as good and friendly neighbours. With this thought in mind, I took my flight back home. I must visit this great country once again.

Arvind Kamath
(The author can be reached at arvindkamath@gmail.com)