There is something intensely liberating about being in a place where no one speaks, or even attempts to speak, your language. This is why a trip to China, which included Beijing, Shanghai, and the picturesque Guilin, got the nod from me right away.
My first morning there and I woke up to find out that Beijing had laid out a white carpet welcome. Fresh snow dusted the wide streets, where people in traditional Chinese clothing cycled by solemnly next to the ones in dapper suits zipping past in the latest cars. The still-holding-on-to-its-traditions and at the same time inching towards the modernization capital of China drew me to itself instantly.
The Great Wall, the Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden Palace were just some of the attractions that fascinated me in this country of people, who are the only ones, perhaps even more superstitious than us Indians.
The Chinese were fascinated by me even more than I was by their country. It was still early days for tourism when I visited in February ’05, and Indian tourists were a rarity. The women there were enthralled by my bouncy curls and wanted to touch them as they pointed ruefully to their poker-straight hair. They wanted to feel my face, my eyes, and my lips and I could only stop them when they wanted to feel my eyeballs. My pierced nose intrigued everyone and I was repeatedly requested to pose for pictures with the locals. I was even asked if I was a movie star back home and, God is my witness, the temptation to concur was immense, but I chose the truth and told them I wasn’t, at which I was promptly advised that I should be! Ah! Beijing was good for my vanity, yes!
Shopping is an internationally indulged in pleasure, but in China, it took a new twist. Being wrapped up in 4 layers of clothing, due to the minus degrees, making it a little difficult for the salespeople to see what size I actually was. The Medium that I wear here was the size that a 7-year-old child there would wear. After much hand gesturing, peeling off layers of clothing, and crowd gathering could a desirable size finally be located and tried on. And this rigmarole was repeated in every place I shopped at.
The Chinese are fascinating people mostly, once they allow you to get to know them. The English language was/is being taught to more than 10 lakh citizens to prepare the country to play host to the 2008 Olympics. And the newfound enthusiasm for the Queen’s language ensured that as fluent speakers, we were treated with awe and often ended up bartering Chinese words in exchange for English ones.
So, if you like being in a place that is learning the language you are reading right now, don’t mind what is on your plate or the cage that it came from and where drinking tea is a lengthy ritual and tradition, head to China. You won’t regret it.
Written for ‘Travel Diary’ a column in ‘Rouge’ a bimonthly supplement with the Times Of India.