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Heed the great call of China (ZT)

I’D like to seem relaxed and comfortable. I’d like to wave off the fact that I can’t understand a word anyone is saying with a casual “ni hao” and a debonair “I’m a traveller” smile.

But I’m at the night food markets, hours after landing in Beijing. The sage words of my local APT guide Fred come flooding back: The Chinese, he says, will eat anything with legs, unless it’s a table or a chair. So should I really be surprised to see a scorpion on a stick, winking at me like a Pluto pup from the dark side? It’s hard to tell if it’s been cooked or not – it’s black and its shell looks hard, but isn’t that what scorpions look like anyway? I find myself pondering things I’ve never pondered before. Would it be crunchy? Would it catch in my throat? What would taste worst – scorpion on a stick or starfish on a stick? Snake? Grasshopper? Would it be better battered? Does it come with sauce? //四条腿的都吃,除了桌子?这是夸张而且也不是所有国人都是吃货。

Would a truly relaxed and comfortable traveller even think these things?

Discretion has always been the better part of valour. So it’s ni hao Maccas, my old friend, refuge for freaked-out, unsophisticated Westerners newly arrived in China’s capital. We’re all thinking the same thing: Thank God for a place where fries are fries are fries. My Chinese communication skills might be wanting, but even I can point to a laminated picture of hot chips. (Later, I learn it isn’t always that easy. One of my tour companions ended up with a burger with four sausages balanced on top.) //最后还是吃汉堡薯条,咳,旅行的意义在哪里啊

Emboldened by carbs and small success, I decide to head down busy Wangfujung, Beijing’s central pedestrian street. There’s Gap and Zara and people eating very complicated ice cream desserts in Haagen Daz (a nod to the local culture, perhaps, ice cream being among the gazillion things possibly invented by the Chinese). //这里的冰激凌相对简单多了,香草咖啡或草莓。

It’s all very familiar, until I take a turn into one of the narrow market streets.

Oriental touts try to flog me caps emblazoned with red stars, chopsticks and long sticks of tiny crab apples dipped in toffee. A vendor tries to stop me snapping what might be key rings – small sealed plastic bags filled with pastel water and desperate, wiggling little frogs, fish and lizards. The only trouble is he’s yelling at me in Mandarin, and to an untrained ear his fury doesn’t sound that different to some of the more convivial conversations going on nearby. Camera down though, he grins. “You buy? How much?” //糖葫芦?

It’s not the way of a truly sophisticated traveller, but it’s still a bit of a relief to head back to the five-star comfort of the Peninsula Hotel, and the kind of deathly sleep that can only come to jetlagged. Tiananmen Square is slated for tomorrow, and I snug up in the knowledge the hectic pace of Beijing will feel more manageable with eight hours under my belt.

It’s 9am, and already the square is heaving, mostly with domestic tourists. They line up in their thousands to see the crystal coffin housing Mao Tse Dong’s preserved remains, marvel at the scale of the place (it’s the world’s third biggest public square) and, like the rest of us, try frantically to keep an eye on their tour guide in the sea of “follow me” flags that flutter under the benevolent gaze emanating from a large portrait of The Chairman.

A confused little boy points at our tour group. Soft-hearted mums and grandmas wave and smile at him, but it just seems to add to his bewilderment. Then a broad-faced local woman in a wild jumper tugs at Deb, a New Zealander with a naughty sense of humour, and pulls her into a photo. Turns out the family is from China’s outer provinces and has never seen a foreigner before. Deb, with her fair hair and skin, looks about as foreign as they come. I wonder if the moment’s been caught on one of the seven security cameras gazing anonymously down from each of the nouveau lights that dot the giant plaza.

We obediently trail Fred, our guide, under a multi-lane road and pop up outside the sprawling, lavish Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors from the Ming and Quing dynasties and hundreds of their attendant concubines. It’s guarded by six towering soldiers. Two of them are ramrod straight in shiny-buttoned uniforms. They’re kind of intimidating. Four others line up behind them, also at attention … in jeans and hoodies. The Chinese equivalent of casual Friday?  //便衣呗

It’s just the kind of thing that makes me think: Could Beijing be any more bewildering? One minute you’re right on board the train labelled “economic powerhouse of the world”. The next, you feel time-warp back to oriental olden days.

Day two takes us to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. It’s late March, but snow still hugs its base as it snakes up and down mountains and through pale mist. We make our way to the cable car that will take us past an unexpected sign warning “Photos of the camel are not free”. Fine by me – I can’t see the camel anyway, but if it’s as ugly as its smell, it doesn’t belong in my album of Chinese happy snaps. The cable car has broken down, so we wait. And wait. And eventually, climb aboard to be whizzed to the stair that will take us to one of the world’s iconic landmarks.

I don’t expect to be wowed, but I am. I can imagine ancient marauding hoards on the attack. The guards rugged up in freezing stone fortresses, sleeping open to the elements. Just as I’m deep in a historic reverie, I’m snapped back to the present by chalk-scrawled graffiti declaring “Marco was here”. So, apparently, was Pauline. I wish they hadn’t been. Back at the cable car, I also wish they’d take down the sign advising those with mental disorders, “acrophobia” (sic) or who’ve had “customary abortions” (fallout from China’s now slightly relaxed one-child policy) can’t board. //某某到此一游,名扬四海阿

It’s a lesson in contrast – writ large. That’s the way of it in Beijing.

Courtyard homes on the narrow hutongs that look humble to the Western eye sell for $10 million. For every shiny new car (about two million of them negotiate Beijing’s wide streets and ring roads, according to Fred), there’s an old bloke playing cards on the street (don’t take photos – like any respectable gambler, they don’t declare their earnings). For every new bridge – and there are plenty of them – there’s a group doing early-morning tai chi in the park. For every swanky retailer, there’s a homemade satellite dish tuned to pirate 200 channels. For every Gucci-clad, fake-nailed glamour puss lining up for the loo, there’s a stooped old bird who’ll shove her out of the way, hand a plastic bag to the loo attendant, strip off her jumper, then her top, then her bra, then reassemble herself with stuff from the bag. Miss Gucci won’t bat an eyelid.

The contrasts of Beijing blindside expectations – that’s what makes it fantastic. Park your preconceived ideas. Your head will spin but you’ll have a ball. //对比强烈会让外来人感到新鲜别致,可是生活在其中,却觉得是畸形。

外国人眼中的中国—北京,总归和自家人的心态不同。他们眼中稀奇古怪的点心,大惊小怪的村民,貌不惊人的胡同,却是我们要日日打交道的平常事物,所以我们不太会把这些天天见到的给写进游记里,也由此读一些别人的《到此一游》会有些趣味。然而在每周一次的频率下(周末版的报纸会有一份旅游手册),发觉视角也越来越无新意。无非是早上进博物馆,晚上去能讨价还价的夜市,对着几个必游景点抒发一下个人情绪(赞美或失望),便草草了结。忽略地名忽略照片,这似乎可以适用于任何可作为旅行的目的地。心中纳闷不知道游记该怎么写,才觉得好看?

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