The woman beamed at me. And slipped her arm around my waist to give me a quick squeeze. She’d stood back to let me off the boat to the former Emperors’ Summer Palace first, and I’d attempted a ‘thankyou’ in her language.
She seemed not only astonished by my gesture, but by my appearance. In seconds, I was jostled to mid line-up position in a photo shoot with her friends and family. One of several occasions The English Visitors were stopped and asked to pose for local Chinese people: nearly all of them warm and smiling.
It was in stark contrast to our arrival in China. The niggling feeling that we weren’t actually that welcome had started at the check-in desk back in Osaka. Every word of our three-day Chinese itinerary was checked and double-checked with grave officiousness. Granted permission to board, we headed for our gate, and realised, on its third repeat, that a tannoy message for”Nigel Simmon” (Simon is his middle name….) and Miss Jane…was for us. We duly reported in at the gate to face more questions about when we’d be leaving China, and were then presented with an A4 indemnity document (all in Chinese….) to sign. An English version was duly produced, checked and signed, and, bewildered and tired, we boarded.
The turbulence continued soon after take-off. And right into the arrivals hall in Beijing. More questions. More requests to step aside for additional questions. Until we realised that the entire hall was now clear of the hundreds of passengers we’d arrived with–and that some of the staff were packing up and leaving, too. We were neatly penned behind security tapes, feeling like Babes in the Wood, waiting for our passports to be triple checked and, eventually, returned.
Finally, we were speeding towards the city centre. We’d asked for a cab, but this was a white Merc with cream leather seats, and a driver so grimly silent that we longed for him to turn round and grin. Or nod. Anything, really. We’d have even put up with a bit of : ‘ere, what do you make of that Nicola Sturgeon, then?’ kind of banter we endure at home.
But nothing. It was late evening by now, and the famous Beijing smog was keeping things hidden. Masked pedestrians loomed out of the hazy darkness like characters in some fifties horror movie.
And then the hotel. All bright, gleaming, chandeliered, gaudiness: a vast bedroom with marble-floored bathroom, oriental silk furnishings and a perfect view of the imperfect: shanty shacks, and ramshackle stores with patched up tin roofs, ten floors and half a world below us. Gilt. And then; guilt.
Undaunted, we stuck to our whistlestop schedule. The breathtaking Forbidden City shared vast acres of secrets with us; but hid so many more. An audio guide was a great way to learn what we could about this place; in spite of the fervent efforts of a tour guide outside who’d pitched his own services repeatedly at us.”But I can help you!” he promised. And, slightly more desperately, as his final shot to Nigel, ” you have a beautiful wife,” (No wife. No dice. Earphones in; we were off.)
Nigel attempted lunch (the reality bearing absolutely no relationship to the picture on the menu), ordered in its courtyard garden. But when we tried to leave, we found the restaurant gates locked. Why? A waiter attempted a translation on his phone. It was “martial law”, he told us, and although I gently scoffed, and headed for the gate regardless….it remained locked until officials outside had crowd control procedures back in hand.
The next day, the Summer Palace lured us towards its less imposing beauty via that boat ride, and a four mile stroll along a misty causeway beside the palace lake. We warmed to its treasures; felt easier here. Even though it was cold and drizzly, somehow we felt slightly more spirited about this visit.
We were exhausted after our day, but had promised ourselves a trip to Tiananmen Square. A monsoon had soaked up every taxi for miles, so we made sense of the subway and headed off. To find access to this iconic part of Beijing …blocked. Police would allow us to stand on the opposite side of the road, but not to cross it. No explanation. And a request from a female police officer to ” speak Chinese, please…”.
Top of our wishlist came to fruition on our final day, with our new, cheery taxi driver more than happy to be commissioned to take us to The Great Wall, and then on to the airport. We’d met him the day before, and had chatted throughout that trip via a translation app on his phone; while he stuck to the apparently normal ‘toot and swerve’ driving style through the city, throwing us from each side of the belt-free back seat like rag dolls. But we made it to the Wall. It’s so iconic, so well known and so vast that to even set foot on this structure after a stunning gondola ride to a suitable access point, took our breath away. We strolled for a mile and a half, gazing at the curling walkway, its watchtowers and the mountains around us, before deciding to make our way down via a luge style toboggan ride. It seemed almost too frivolous a mode of transport after our visit to the Wall…but we did it anyway, and then sped to the airport where our exit seemed a whole lot easier than our arrival.
Overall? I never dreamt I’d get to China, and this was the chance of a lifetime. There’s so much to see, so much to learn about, so much to hear, taste, smell and experience. There are slums half a kilometre from rows of bright, shiny designer stores. There are performance cars battling for city space with rickshaws, mopeds, and overloaded trikes. There’s state of the art, world-leading technology being pioneered here. And centuries of history to research and explore. We met a few individuals who showed us warmth and kindness during our three days in Beijing. But did we feel welcomed by this powerful country of culture and contrast? Encouraged to see more; to return? Not really.
Ever been to a country where the lack of warmth of the people has affected your desire to return? Is the welcome you are afforded the biggest factor in forming an overall opinion? We’d love to hear your views in the comments below.