A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
For absolutely no reason whatsoever except a week off and a cheap flight, I travelled to Beijing for a few days.
I didn’t know what to expect, though I naively assumed Beijing would be like Seoul. Boy, was I wrong.
The first thing I noticed were the security guards and police officers in furry hats emblazoned with red stars and wearing big army-green coats on the road, outside businesses and at the entrance to tourist attractions. I briefly panicked and wondered if there was an incident and the city was in a state of emergency. Nope. In Beijing subways, every station has a group of police checking bags at the ticket gate.
If I thought the modern vs traditional juxtaposition in Korea was shocking, it was nothing compared to China.
Beijing is glittering skyscrapers and monstrous department stores. It’s crumbling hutong alleyways containing the detritus of thousands of years of Chinese life. It’s suburban shopping malls leftover from the 80s that look the same almost everywhere in the world. It’s fading Communist slogans on building walls. Old Japanese cars, luxury sportscars, rusting bicycles and rickshaws compete for road space. Unlike Korea, where there’s a whole lot of everything everywhere with businesses stacked on too of each other, Beijing is more spread out – sometimes annoyingly so, as I marched up and down long streets to bus stops, train stations and landmarks that were nowhere near each other.
Strangely, the smells in China reminded me of Chinatown and certain neighbourhoods in Australia.
But amongst the urban grime was breathtaking history, culture and architecture of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Which is what I was there to see.
Beijing was a surreal place. I felt like I was in a strange dream. Then again, I saw some strange places and did some strange things.
Just round the corner from a Dairy Queen was a long alleyway of short, dark grey buildings with deep red doors. This is a traditional Chinese neighbourhood, a far cry from masses of blocky high rise apartments in the city. A wrong turn could send you into a tiny, dusty labyrinth to people’s front doors. People sold hats, gloves, fruit and vegetables out of the back of trucks and scooters parked haphazardly in the alleyway – sometimes driving out of the way if a bigger vehicle dared to drive through. Some old ladies had set up a table in the middle of the hutong where they were sewing hems and socks. Restaurants set up grills out the front to sell bread and street food.
My hostel was an oasis in the middle of the madness, complete with koi fish ponds. A fluffy, talkative cat hung out in the shared area. We huddled around the heater together.
I stupidly went to the city on Monday, when the main area is closed.
The square is much bigger than I imagined. I walked with my head bowed against the cold winter winds, like I was crossing a white-tiled desert. I felt so small. I wondered how big those tanks were. I recognised the big white lamps from the famous photo, but tried not to think too much about it. Those furry hat security guards made me nervous.
The Forbidden City was amazing…
…but just I ended up getting lost and shouted at over tickets. Something I found out over the next few days in Beijing is that you have to buy a ticket each time you go to different areas of a tourist destination.
Anyway, at one point I accidentally left the city and couldn’t get back in without buying yet another ticket, so I gave up and walked down a very long road to a subway station.
My driver pointed out a magnificent red and gold building next to the highway on the way from the airport to my hostel. I’ve seen many temples since being in Asia, but this one was particularly beautiful.
It was in Melbourne, of all places, that I first tried Uyghur food. They’re an ethnic group living in Western China and bordering Central Asia. So their food tastes like a mix between Asian and Arabic flavours – noodles, dumplings and stir fry, but with breads, different spices and lamb.
Anyway, I was delighted to find the Kashgar Restaurant in the same hutong as my hostel. During the day, the cooks made thick breads and lamb skewers on portable grills outside the restaurant. For dinner, I ate noodles in a tangy sweet sauce with rich, juicy lamb, and read about the history of Korea and Eastern Asia in comic book form.
But I was still hungry, so I set off for the Wangfujing markets.
Stalls down a cramped alleyway sold everything from dumplings to deep fried starfish.
“Where are you from?” asked a friendly dumpling cook as he fried my dumplings.
“I’m Korean Australian,” I said.
“Ah! 잘 먹겠습니다! 감사합니다!” he said excitedly. Eat well! Thank you!
The dumplings were just as good as his language skills.
Another fellow further down was selling deep fried ice cream. A kind lady hand fed me bits of a crunchy nut snack. I bought toffee fruit on a stick. You can get this everywhere in Beijing. It’s like a toffee apple but for small, bite-sized bits of fruit.
After hiking through a forest and across a bridge, I saw one big building and thought “that’s a nice palace. I’ll be done by lunchtime.”
But then I climbed up to the top and found even more buildings on my way down the other side – temples, pagodas, shrines, a beautiful house containing extravagant gifts for Empress Xixi. It looked like the perfect place to invite friends round to drink wine and play board games.
Then the entire palace grounds stretched out before me. I saw more towers in the distance. I felt very small again.
In the middle was an enormous lake with an island in the middle. It’s winter in China, so the lake had frozen over.
“I want to go to that island,” I thought. So I took the obvious course of action.
I swear I heard the ice groan beneath me as I sled across a huge frozen lake on what felt like a plastic bucket. An extra 50 yuan got you an ice bicycle, which seemed to be a favourite for old Chinese men.
The island itself wasn’t very interesting, but the white bridge leading to it was eerily beautiful.
Exhausted at the thought of walking around the entire palace, I hopped back on the bus and went somewhere else…
Following vague directions on the internet, I caught a bus to the side of a highway, walked through a neighbourhood, sneaked through a construction site and ducked under a fence to find the 798 Art Zone – a neighbourhood of sculptures and art.
So what kind of art do people living in a censored, heavily policed country make? Young Chinese artists incorporated Communist propaganda, Chinese pandas and commercial logos together in beautiful paintings and garish posters. One of my favourite places was the Fantasy Utopia Art Factory. Down a grungy, graffiti-covered alleyway blasting old Beatles songs was a gallery/shop selling stuff shamelessly mashing Western and Eastern pop culture, Chairman Mao, American action figures and business logos together. Some of it was borderline-offensive and nothing I felt safe to wear in Korea or Australia. Yet in China where security guards were constantly watching you and where almost everything Western on the internet is banned, it seemed more daring and significant.
I’d heard of a place called Ghost Street which featured hundreds of places to eat, so I set off looking for it. Unfortunately, my censored internet only seemed to bring up vague results. I wandered around an empty-looking Dongzhimen station. A white guy walked past.
“Do you speak English?… Great. Do you know where Ghost Street is?”
He had no idea what I was talking about, but thought it might be near the Yonghegong temple station.
Following his directions, I walked down a dark, quiet street lit only by the odd dim red lantern.
“Is this why it’s called Ghost Street…?”
Another big difference between Beijing and Seoul is lighting. Seoul is an explosion of light pollution at every corner. Beijing is tiny pale lights in long streets after dark. For the first time since going abroad, I felt scared.
Then I emerged at the end of a main road. I saw restaurants, but it didn’t look like Ghost Street in the photos online.
Whatever. I was tired and hungry. Luckily for me, there was an English-speaking dumpling place. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but the fresh handmade dumplings and Kung Pao chicken soothed my rage over taking a bum steer from an expat. Never again.
Stay tuned for Part 2… toboganning down the Great Wall, lost in a labyrinth and more!