Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Culture Shock

I wake at 3 pm, having slept solidly from midnight. A night on Dom's floor and snatched sleep on the plane left me dead on arrival. Yesterday was tough, but it seems miles away now. When I arrived, the hostel was empty, I didn't understand the language, everything seemed too big or too fast. At junctions, cars seemed to race across, people ran. From a distance it felt like watching a stop-motion video, unnatural and disconcerting. Jingshan park was crowded with Chinese tourists. I paid my 2yuan entry (20p) and wandered in. From the top of the hill, hidden by trees, I could hear singing in Chinese, beautiful harmonising voices. I started to climb, passing a man standing on the roof of a hut, engaging in a painful-sounding self-tapping ritual. At the top I reached a gazebo-type structure. Two women had erected a tape deck and speakers. This is the music I'd been hearing. Disorientated, I started to walk, passing through more gazebo-type huts decorated in red and gold. I reached the largest one, the highest, with an enormous buddha statue inside. Tourists queued up to bow, but I turned back, worried I'd get it wrong. From here the city looked overwhelmingly endless, shrouded in its low lying off-yellow cloud.

I kept walking, getting my bearings. I finally got back to the hotel hours later, mildly wet, moderately underfed and exhausted. Entering my room again, reviewing the small oppressive corridor with two sets of four poster beds, I burst into tears. For half an hour I couldn't stop crying, letting fatigue and fear flow out of me. Speaking to Alisa and Soleil calmed me down. I got into bed and watched a film, forcing myself to stay up until I could barely see with tiredness and my ears started playing tricks on me.

Today is different. I feel fresh. I head out of the hostel, past a crowd of young Americans and Canadians who I've been vaguely aware of from my room laughing and drinking since midday. I want to talk to them, but right now I need food. I reach a main street and stop in the first restaurant I come to. After so long the meal - kung po chicken and salty vegetable dumplings with the most fantastic chewy-crunchy texture - brings me fully back. In good spirits I return to the hostel. This time I don't know how to approach the group of people, still sitting around a load of bottles of beer. I sit down at a computer to check my emails, and smile at the girl.

"Would you like to join us?" She smiles in my direction as she asks, and I gratefully take a seat amongst them. This is my first exposure to travellers' banter, and it's fun. Ben always said it's like speeded up friendship, and it's clear that noone has the barriers up in the way they do when you meet people at home. They know that they'll be gone in an hour or two, as do you, so you can say what you like. There's nothing to hold you to them or them to you, so you are completely relaxed, and nothing is taken too seriously. We rinse each other mercilessly. It feels pretty good.

Later I head out from the hostel to meet a woman called Ashley I met on couchsurfing.com. It's a website that advertises beds in cities for travellers - usually on people's couches. I just want to meet some people who know Beijing, so I am seeing Ashley for a drink with some of her friends. I give the taxi driver the google map address of the place we're drinking, carefully transcribed by a helpful woman from my hostel. He drops me off, and a man immediately offers me a "Lady bar".

"You want sex? What, you don't like sex?" he asks.

I brush him off irritatedly, and start to walk. A moment of panic sets in - I can't see the place we're meeting, the Pink Loft. He approaches again.

"You need help?" Gratefully I show him my directions. Luckily his profession gives him a goodish grasp of English. "This is North street. You want South street. You go there, cross, keep walking. You find it." I thank him, setting off in the right direction and brushing off more people offering me sex.

When I meet Ashley she leads me to a bar. "This is a pretty authentic Chinese bar experience," she explains to me, guiding me into a hotel lobby. "You have to go through a seedy dive, where they charge for rooms by the hour, to get there." We get in the lift and she takes us to the top floor, where I meet her friends. The crowd is largely American, friendly, with a reminiscent scent of home befitting the conversation of expats. We discuss the city, my travel plans and childhood tv shows. Leaving, I get John's number. The party is given in his honour, as he's moving to Shanghai next week. This gives me a valuable contact in the city, which I'll be travelling to in the next week or two, and makes me feel even happier. Tomorrow I have to be up early, I'm taking a tour of the city. I just need to work out how to get to sleep first.

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