Kaye loves London, so why did she leave? Read the fifth part of her story here
Continued from 11 April
And so, in the summer of 2010, I found myself Beijing bound. Why? Perhaps it was because I’d found myself back in Blighty – but not by choice – when my career in Cayman, was terminated. Maybe it was because after the initial honeymoon period, London – where I had lived for most of my life – felt monotonous compared to the new adventures that Asia was offering. And definitely it was due to the fact that, back in 2010, few cities exuded such a tangible sense of up to the minute cachet and cool as Beijing and my motto has always been: “It’s better to see a place once, than talk about it a hundred times.” Or as the travel writer, Freya Stark, once said: “In spite of all the hardships, discomforts and sickness, the lure of exploration still continues to be one of the strongest lodestars of the human spirit and will be so, while there is the rim of an unknown horizon in this world or the next.”
As I prepared to bid goodbye to Britain once more and board the BA plane for Beijing, family and friends revealed that they would rather I had been sent to Shanghai. In some respects, I can understand this sentiment: Shanghai is, after all, the more foreign friendly Chinese city. However if, like me, you want to see the real deal China, Beijing is where it’s at – being significantly richer in local colour than its southern sibling. The Imperial City’s bustling streets are alive with rickety tuk tuks and vibrant smells of food stalls, and English is most definitely a foreign language – I found myself using gestures and smiles to interact with people.
Challenging? Yes, but for me, Beijing embodied everything I loved about living and working in another country: namely new experiences and the challenge of trying to comprehend them.
Through Internations – a wonderful website for expatriates – I met like minded people, many of whom have become firm friends for life. Together we spent our weekends marvelling at the thousands of years of history at our feet: from the magnificent Forbidden City, which took 15 years to build, to Tiananmen Square (the largest public square in the world), the Temple of Heaven (a place of worship for emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties) and of course the Great Wall. Only a few places on earth are more mesmerisng in the flesh than on the postcard, and the Great Wall – the symbol of China – is one of them.
Yet while it’s steeped in history, Beijing is striving forward and cutting edge architecture abounds signalling Beijing’s intent to become a world city. Check out the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium (proof if any is needed, that Beijing has arrived on the world stage), for starters.
But while Beijing’s blockbuster sights – both old and new – are instantly familiar, iconic landmarks guaranteed to inspire even the most jaded of travellers, they’re not the whole picture. Not by far. Some of the city’s finest sights, I found by accident: simply by losing yourself in the labyrinth like hutongs (alleyways) that are arguably the heart and soul of China’s capital.
Strolling around the hutongs in areas like Chongwen, Xicheng and Xuanwu (if not Nanluogu Xiang, which has been developed for tourists), afforded an intimate glimpse into the lives of locals. I’d see old men and women sitting on the floor playing mah jong, while grandmothers gossiped and chewed the fat over endless cups of tea as they have done for centuries. But to really tune into the Beijing vibe, I’d start my day by practicing Thai Chi in Ritan Park. Beijing is punctuated by parks which, for most Beijingers, are akin to a second home – a place to socialise, relax and stay fit – but Ritan Park is one of the prettiest. Plus it was only a stone’s throw away, from my rented one bedroom flat.
And the icing on the cake? Beijing was, when I was there, blissfully affordable: I ate (chi fan - meaning ‘lets eat’ – is arguably Beijing’s favourite phrase) for peanut prices. Best Beijing bite? Every Beijinger has their own highlight, but my mealtimes invariably revolved around the egg based jiangbing - a sweet, salty and crunchy ‘Chinese crepe,’ sold on almost any street corner for 5RMB (50p) – that had me practically keeling over in bliss.
Evenings, meanwhile, were spent in Sanlitun and Houhai - home to the greatest concentration of clubs and cafes – or else partying like a local and not a laowai (foreigner) at a KTV, bar. Sure karaoke sounds like an odd way to relax and unwind but, as I discovered upon picking up the mic and playing air guitar for the first time, it’s actually a heap of fun!
- I also discovered the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine which, in my mind, is one of China’s biggest gifts to the world- right up there with the noodle. Throughout my twenties, I’d struggled with severe IBS and ‘coped’ by popping painkillers to alleviate my symptoms. But on arrival in Beijing, I found western hospitals were charging crazy prices for medication. Subsequently when my Mandarin teacher suggested I see a TCM doctor, I decided – given my physical discomfort - to “give it a go”. I had my tongue and pulse points checked and was advised to avoid over processed western food, and follow an oriental diet instead. For while Chinese food has a bad reputation in the UK, conjuring up images of deep fried, fatty dishes such as sweet and sour pork and prawn crackers, real Chinese cuisine is super healthy: the majority of the meal is made up of stir fried vegetables and washed down with green tea. Don’t believe me? If you get the chance to go to Beijing, take a look at the evidence all around you: the elderly Chinese are, without fail, extremely slim. It’s only the younger generation – who have been educated overseas at British and American universities, and fed a diet of fast food – who are on the obese side.
One week after my first TCM session, my swelling had subsided and happily I haven’t had any stomach problems since, helping me realise that the most effective cure for complaints isn’t always to be found on the shelves of the pharmacy, but within ourselves. I now always seek out TCM as opposed to pumping myself full of pricey pills and chemicals. Case in point? If I come down with a cold, I’ll sign up for scraping (also referred to as gua sha) – which involves stroking a ceramic instrument across the body to cure coughs and expel viruses. Pain free or pleasant, it isn’t. It is, however, productive and I promise you this: afterwards you’ll feel fabulous.
My wardrobe was also looking fabulous thanks to weekly shopping sprees at the Silk Market. Here, after haggling hard, I picked up endless pairs of shoes, tops and trousers that could have come straight from the set of guilty pleasure, Gossip Girl (which you can buy from industrious Beijing bootleggers, for the price of a pizza).
Of course China’s capital has its problems: corruption and pollution – thanks to the 1,000 new cars that take to the roads on a daily basis – prevail, while historic hutongs are being destroyed, forcing families out of homes they have lived in for generations. Nonetheless I felt during those first few months in Beijing, that there was real reason for optimism and learned that life outside of London is just as valid, as life in London. Or as JR Tolkien termed it: “Not everyone who wanders is lost.”
To read part six of Kaye’s expat tales, don’t forget to visit CD-Traveller next month