Beijing travel diary: Playing charades with strangers; visiting the Great Wall, tea houses

“May I get a bowl, please?”  I said.


“Bowl, bowl,” I circled my palms on the table and raised them up like a potter would, and then pretended to slurp out of my new imaginary creation.

“Yaah,” said the waitress. She ran inward and returned with a glass of water. She was smiling like Florence Henderson; devastatingly motherly. I took it and said ‘Xièxiè’, in the tender tone of one of the Brady Bunch girls. In China, I played charades with strangers for food, transport and directions.

Beijing is not Shanghai. People don’t speak English here, there are no trains magnetically gravitating as though toward other galaxies, and no necklace of sky-scrapers whose glossy gems seem stolen from the one around Hong Kong’s neck.

 Beijing travel diary: Playing charades with strangers; visiting the Great Wall, tea houses

The 9,999 rooms in the Forbidden City are contained within 980 magnificent wooden buildings

“I wish I could move to Hong Kong," sighed a lady sitting at a table next to mine. She was a tour guide and willingly revealed that Beijingers weren’t kind to migrants like her, who have to live on the outskirts of the city and travel multiple hours to ride into downtown for work. “Rents are very high in Beijing and unless you belong to a government family or a political family, you cannot afford a house in the city,” she ranted. Housing prices rose 18 percent last year but restrictions on non-residents buying houses until they have paid tax in Beijing for five years made renting the only option for many of the city’s youngsters and migrant workers. In Beijing, prime real estate is reserved for central government and military-owned enterprises. “How will a school teacher or a bus driver pay rents that are nearly five times their monthly salaries?” she asks. The city’s population has doubled since 1999 and handling an influx of 500,000 migrants from other cities in the country is putting pressure on resources.

After a tall glass of water in that restaurant in Wangfujing, the shopping street in Dongcheng District, right behind my hotel, I walked around on an empty stomach. As one would expect to see in China, there were food stalls with shiny (either honey-glazed or golden fried) seahorses, starfish and scorpions, stood with sticks pierced through their hearts. The area is believed to have been built in the middle of the Ming Dynasty (roughly in the 1500s). At night, there weren’t any street lights. Large neon screens displaying ads for watch brands (Seiko, Mido and others) made light. Red gauze lamps were tied to wires and hung in a straight pattern over the Hutong (a narrow lane) I walked into. A little scared, I took out my phone and opened Facebook to return to familiarity. It showed me a photograph of Zuckerberg with Chinese warnings above and below. In China, Google is Baidu and has a paw-mark in the centre of its logo. It looks childish and ineffective. For the first time in very many years, I felt like I was alone in this large world, orphaned by the internet. Feeling hungry and foolish, I called it a night.

Effigy painter Zhang Zhenshi's painting was used as a model for this giant image of Mao that hangs on Tiananmen Square

Effigy painter Zhang Zhenshi's painting was used as a model for this giant image of Mao that hangs on Tiananmen Square

The next day, I left for the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall of China, which is a little over an hour away from Beijing city. For breakfast, I had enjoyed the dramatics of a hot-pot meal, in which steaming stew pots served braised tofu, sugar-fried water chestnut, and steamed Shui Zhu Yu dipped in chili oil. I paired it with a bowl of hand-pulled noodles that tasted like butter and pepper. The memory of my last meal vanished at the first sight of the Great Wall, rising, bending and falling like threads from a yarn ball. The chair lift that rose me toward it brought the densely forested mountains into clear view. On that sunny day, the 23 ziggurats at close intervals offered the walkers cool shade. I noticed deviant scrawls on bricks. Much to the defeat of my curiosity, those too were in Chinese. Mutianyu and Badaling are fully restored sections of the 8,851.8 km wall and are usually more crowded. I had been told by condescending adventure enthusiasts in India that serious trekkers must head to Jinshanling, Huanghuacheng and Jiankou. On the only manmade structure visible from the moon, I looked up and searched for a round white dot in a bright sunlit sky just to say hello. Throughout the three-hour long trek, a pair of locally bought gore-tex lined hiking boots made my feet feel like they’d been trapped in the pointy teeth of snappy little dogs. I took the tire slide and whooshed downhill.

In the evening, when the feet were breathing again, I limped along the Hou Hai lake side quaintness where tiny bars – scandalously violet, yellow, and smoky – stood facing a lake –and on its coal tar like face, the reflections of their cheer shone like rainbow rings. Designed as a ladies bar, Sex and da City houses a two-storeyed mural of Marilyn Monroe. Here, English-speaking Chinese women talk about how the one-child policy is harder on them because they are solely responsible for taking care of ageing parents and in-laws, and that interferes with their freedom and constricts career choices. They suddenly promised not to talk about their worries and introduced Absolut Astronaut Shooters and the Sex and da City Absolut Cosmopolitans into the night. Did they secretly envy a political climate where a Samantha or a Carrie could live the way she wanted to? They then talked about 20 May being the day of love because, in Chinese phonetics, ‘5.20’ is ‘I love you’. Data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs from 2012 shows that marriages in China are increasingly falling apart, with divorce rates in Beijing and Shanghai over 30 percent after having risen for seven consecutive years. Bang next to the girls at the bar, a bunch of boys born in the one child policy era were ruing the lack of women. Known as ‘bare branches’, they talked about the lack of girls to date and marry.

Hou Hai is a lakeside street that houses more than a 100 bars, tea houses and karaoke bars

Hou Hai is a lakeside street that houses more than a 100 bars, tea houses and karaoke bars

China alone stands to have as many unmarried young men as the entire population of young men in America.  At present, there are 40 million American men under 20.  In 2020, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there will be 40 million more Chinese men than women in that same age group. In fact, the Chinese government estimates that by 2020, there will be at least 30 million men of marriageable age who may be unable to find a spouse. Ask them if they want to use Facebook and they pull out iPhones with access to it; life hacks!

At Hou Hai, where these people were, pole dancers and violinists are a regular feature. That night, the music was part-Adele, part-Shunza; Sino-American harmony. There’s a football-themed club with multiple screens and outdoor shisha dens. This is where I first sipped on Mao Tai, the classic Chinese alcohol made from distilled sorghum. It tasted like rusted iron nails boiled in black soy overnight.

My hotel was a two-minute walk from the Avenue of Everlasting Peace: the Chinese equivalent of Raj Path. On one side of it is Tiananmen Square, a large piece of open land charged with the haunting spirit of an anonymous Tank Man. Young blood that had once contracted the virus of democracy, had been washed out. On the other side of the road is a 6m x 4.6m portrait of Mao Zedong, the founder-father of the People’s Republic of China and its most important communist revolutionary. But Mao was dead and the reforms of the '80s were bound to throw at the masses the perils of inflation, poor quality education and the lack of political participation. The colour of the east is red and the blood of its people is red. It is no longer possible to tell when and how much they stain each other. I stared at young men standing guard outside Forbidden City. When I tried to take a selfie with them in the backdrop, they objected. They weren’t completely thoughtless.


(L-R) The Great Wall of Mutianyu is 65 km to the north of Beijing city proper and is less crowded compared to the most popular Badaling section; The watchtowers on the great wall are mainly 2 storeys tall. The first floor was used to station soldiers or store food and weapons. The second floor was for lookout; Live performances amid purple lights and theatre smoke make Beijing's Hou Hai district come alive

A mood swing after, I left for Silk Street in search of floral-printed tunics and skater dresses and then to Yashow Market, a cheaper garment market. Except the girls at tea houses and shops, I spotted nobody else in a cheongsam. Those Cobra, Hammer and Buddha buns rolled around chopsticks that are often showcased in glossy magazine spreads, weren’t visible either. Girls had neon tints on collars and wore wasted denim hot pants and plenty of boys turned their American baseball caps backwards and looked aloof.

My last stop was a tea house in the Dongcheng District, where tea sommeliers stood around walls stamped with calligraphic messages. With pin-straight hair curling inwards upon their cheeks, two girls broke solid rings of Pu'er tea into a powder that released sour smells. Hurriedly, they explained it must be had an hour before a meal to flush out undigested fat and grease from the previous meal, as they moved from white to green to fruit to flower varieties. “Tea is not coffee, it is not unhealthy like coffee. You can have tea all day unlike Western drinks,” said one, giving a side-eye to the German contingent that chuckled at her remark. They poured hot water over a ‘pee boy’ clay doll and announced that if the water sprinkled out, then it was a sign that it was boiled optimally. The Germans giggled more. The silken fans hung on walls looked Japanese, with cherry blossoms on their silk faces. One of the girls pointed to a fan and said it was made in Souzhou, a Chinese region famous for its craftsmanship. I sat by a corner with a cup of caramel tea, a sample they made for me after I purchased a box full of it for 100 RMB. The Pu’er tea I bought was priced at 150 RMB and it tasted like fermented tree bark.

Despite the fact that the country denied me the right to access what seems like my real life: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I loved observing people in mainland China. Minutes before I stepped out to hail a cab toward the airport, I took out a notepad and scribbled:

Beneath red lanterns in the summer wind,

Close to white dumpling steam and russet flushes of tea,

I wait to hear tunes of an old song sung in Mandarin;

In a Cheongsam dress that staged a soft drama of silk and flower,

I feel the great wall between the meaning of your words and my ignorance of their purpose,

Yet I write with the belief that strange stories are waiting to be made in China.

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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2017 08:39:59 IST