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Embracing the Dragon
A Woman's Remarkable Journey Along the Great Wall of China
By Polly Greeks
Awa PressCopyright © 2006 Polly Greeks
All rights reserved.
There is a roar of engines, a moment when gravity pulls me back, and then New Zealand is shed like a skin. It floats mottled green on the Pacific Ocean as I soar towards the sun.
When the plane touches down at Sydney Airport, my heart hits the ground with a thump. Nathan isn't here to meet me. I scan the throng of people waiting at Arrivals and a wave of anxiety surges in. What if he's changed his mind? Supposing he doesn't turn up? What will I do? Will I go on alone? A tight band around my chest leaves me breathless.
I kill a couple of hours wandering around the airport, pretending to browse through duty-free shops as I sift the crowds for Nathan. There's still no sign of him.
I proceed alone to the transit lounge. The ticket in my hand says I am flying to Beijing. Of course I will go. With or without my boyfriend.
Just twenty minutes before take-off, Nathan casually wanders in and sits alongside me. 'Been doing emails at the airport internet shop,' he says. He hands me a packet of duty-free KitKat bars as a gift. Yesterday was my birthday.
We sit in silence before I go to the toilets and cry.
So it's a KitKat bar. So what? It's great. You probably can't even get chocolate in China. It's funny. It's Nathan. Why am I feeling so upset?
I've made a terrible mistake. I shouldn't have come.
A woman's voice crackles over the loudspeakers: 'Passengers to China may now board their plane.'
As we shuffle along at the back of the queue, I feel as if I'm boarding the Titanic.
We touch down at Beijing Airport some time after midnight. As the plane roars in to land, it finally, totally hits me. This is it! This is real! The journey has taken 25 hours. Numb with tired ness, I lean against the window as a taxi carries us through dark, empty streets to a budget hotel. Nathan shepherds me into an echoing foyer, where I perch on a slippery vinyl couch while he books us a room for the night. A fluorescent bulb flickers a pale green pallor over two uniformed guards framed in the door way. The darkness beyond them smells of exhaust fumes and drains, something musty and old.
'This is China,' I whisper.
Two days ago I was celebrating my twenty-eighth birthday with friends in New Zealand.
Now everything, and everyone, is unfamiliar. Everything. The language, people, money, the smells. I don't have a map, a phrasebook or guidebook, only Nathan. I look at his profile as he leans over the hotel counter, and doubt clenches my stomach. I've known him for only seven months. Now he seems as remote as New Zealand itself, and I have a dreadful feeling he wishes I hadn't come. What on earth was I thinking to pack up my life and head out into the mountains of China with him?
The truth is I wasn't thinking at all. I got so caught up in the romance of adventure, I forgot to research the reality of where I was going.
The China in my head has been a tranquil, easy place of bustling markets, bicycles and bizarre-shaped mountains silhouetted against blazing sunsets. I haven't considered the practicalities of suddenly being immersed in an alien culture. My only preparation has been learning how to count to ten in Mandarin. So, I'm now reliant on Nathan for everything. I don't know a single thing about the Great Wall of China. I don't even know what's outside this hotel. If he were to disappear right this second, I can't imagine what I would do.
What a fool. Part of me wants to cling to Nathan as if he were a lifebuoy. Another part of my mind watches appalled. Who is this needy, frightened creature?
There is a problem with the rooms. Women and men aren't allowed to share. Arguments wash over my head in a flotsam and jetsam of foreign words, and then I am led down a long, dark hallway to a room full of beds. Two lumps under blankets barely stir as I offload my pack.
Later, down the corridor in the men's room, a Western man blinks as I enter to slide alongside Nathan in bed. I need to be held. I need something solid to anchor to. But although I fall asleep in his arms, there's still a distance between us.
When I wake up, it feels as if I'm caught in a dream over which I have no control. The China I'm in fails to charm. The beds are covered in stiff, heavy sheets that smell of cigarettes. The view from the window is of dirty, grey concrete apartment blocks and soot-stained factories. Water runs down the wall in the communal bathroom and I can't figure out how to flush the squat toilet.
I am so relieved to have Nathan to tell these things to that I put aside yesterday's distance between us. My gratitude continues as he steers me up a noisy street and pushes me on to a bus. He pays for us both. But every little action he makes on my behalf makes me cringe. I have never felt so dependent in all my life. I want to tell Nathan about that as well, butadmitting my dependency is too awful to say out loud. Supposing he confesses that he's also hating it and asks me to leave? Is that why he still feels withdrawn?
'You okay?' I ask, but he only nods and we end up staring in silence from the crowded bus window.
Beijing's on the run. As if racing to catch up with the twenty-first century, this city has no time for still-life portraits. Images are blurred and action-packed. Smog has swallowed the sky. Beneath the heavy grey haze, the skyline is cluttered with cranes and half-completed high-rise buildings. Roads surge with a constant, chaotic roar of buses, cars and bicycles, while heaving crowds press close on the pavements and up from the Underground. I could lift my feet up from the ground and this mass of people would carry me with it.
The images of Chinese people I've carried with me from childhood storybooks do not exist in downtown Beijing. Smiling-faced peasants dressed in simple smocks and coolie hats have been replaced by sleekly groomed women carrying pastel-coloured cellphones. Men are uniformly dressed in sombre blazers and pants, and have identical helmet haircuts.
All day I feel breathless, uncertain. What am I doing here?
I see no art, no creativity, nothing to spark recognition in my heart. There's no graffiti spray-painted on concrete walls, no posters advertising upcoming gigs in music bars. The city centre is modern, as if coated in Teflon so that everything slides off its surface. Back home, the labels on a mountain of cheap clothes and plastic goods announce 'Made in China', and now I am at the source. This is Mecca for aficionados of plastic. Shop windows – and there seem to be millions of them – are filled with bright, tacky bags, baskets, bowls, cups, plastic flowers, 'Hello Kitty' style knick-knacks, synthetic clothes and shoes. It's all so mass-produced that every store looks the same.
There must be another Beijing somewhere for the people. For their souls.
On our way to the money exchange, Tiananmen Square is suddenly framed within the bus window. Under a dull grey sky, its acres of stone make it look like a huge, empty car park. Thousands of Chinese people are lined up on one side, as small as ants. Nathan tells me they pour in from the provinces every day – tourists who come to shuffle past the preserved corpse of Chairman Mao, before watching the People's Liberation Army march by in some daily flag-lowering ritual. This seems odd. From what I've heard of Mao's oppressive regime, I would have thought people would be dancing on his grave, instead of coming to pay their respects.
Nathan likes Beijing. He's become familiar with this sprawling city and leads me through it with an enthusiasm I find hard to share. I try to look for the magic of the place through his eyes, but it eludes me, lost amid multi-lane high ways, pollution and rushing crowds. 'Keep an open mind,' I remind myself sternly.
I should know by now not to have expectations of how a country will be. I've learnt during my travels that the reality of places seldom matches the picture-book images you see in a travel agent's glossy brochures. I learnt that in India and Nepal years ago, when I discovered that the photos I'd seen of quaint mountain villages had been cunningly composed to conceal the Coca-Cola signs, that images of temples were skilfully shot to hide the lepers' outstretched fingerless hands, that endearing grimy urchins staring out from portraits turned out to be hollow-cheeked child beggars, that the postcards of untouched beaches had been taken at dawn before the package tourists descended en masse. As I trail after Nathan through the heaving crowds, I try to accept modern Beijing as it is, instead of searching between the apartment blocks and highways for a somehow more authentic Chinese experience.
All the same, cities aren't really my thing. My favourite travelling experiences have all happened in nature – the shock of coming face to face with a white-robed Indian silently surveying me in a Colombian forest, the sight of a thousand red glinting crocodile eyes as I boated up a jungle river by torchlight in Bolivia, the exhilaration of glimpsing a whale from a storm-tossed ship while sailing off the coast of Chile. I like journeys where the only certainty is that you must expect the unexpected.
And yet the unexpected is everywhere, even in downtown Beijing. As I wander with Nathan down a labyrinth of narrow brick alleyways called hutongs, I discover groups of old men standing talking on corners. Other men and women stand behind rickety wooden carts piled with tattered vegetables. Dusty stacks of plastic bowls spill from shoebox-sized shops, and the restaurants are so tiny there's room only for a couple of plastic tables and chairs. The hutongs are out of reach of the constantly roaring traffic. In these quiet places, it seems we've stepped back to a slower, less aggressive society. Through postage-stamp windows in mildewed brick walls, I spot men in white singlets frying fritters in woks. The scent catches on the black button nose of a fluffy white dog. It lifts its head for a moment, but its leash is tugged by the stooped, bandy-legged old man shuffling past.
Although it's common knowledge that in China they eat dogs, this canine looks far too pampered to be wary of a roasting dish. I'm the one who is wary. Luckily, Nathan's phrasebook has the line, 'I am a vegetarian', and already I've had to point to it vigorously at mealtimes to avoid the horror of braised hound turning up on my plate.
All the restaurants we've gone into so far have been randomly selected during our explorations of the hutongs. Breakfast has consisted of bland white-rice porridge, served from steaming cauldrons. Lunches and dinners have been more of a challenge. Although Nathan can speak some Mandarin, he can't read the menus, and the waitresses frequently gesture bewilderment as he tries to explain what we want. And so we've ended up entering the tiny restaurant kitchens, selecting vegetables and making chopping motions at the bemused chefs to indicate what we'd like with our noodles. Dining at these family-run restaurants has been a nice way to establish intimacy with the local people. Although we are ignored on the streets, the men's faces crease into welcoming smiles as we enter their premises, while giggling teenage girls crowd around curiously to bombard Nathan with questions.
I came to China angry at the population for its appalling track record on human rights, particularly in Tibet, but the warmth from these people makes it difficult not to like them.
I recall an incident in Northern India, in McCloudganj, where the Dalai Lama now lives. I was talking with a Tibetan refugee who'd escaped over the Himalaya to flee Chinese persecution, and I asked him, 'Do you hate the Chinese for what they've done?' Pausing to remove a little beetle from my shoulder, he smiled and shook his head. 'They are just mothers and fathers and somebody's sons and daughters. They are just people. The government is not good but the people are just like me.'
And he's right: the people are just people.
It's time to prepare for the mountains. I am eager to leave. I've found fragments of a different, slower world around Beijing's periphery, but it's not enough. I'm hungry for something more foreign. I want to find places where people haven't yet acquired a taste for McDonald's or the dictum of fashion labels. Beijing's too fast and international. People keep their eyes focused on something just out of reach.
I empty my pack and divide my gear into a pile for trekking and a pile to go into storage. 'Ready!' I call when the deed is done. With the seriousness of a sergeant-major, Nathan comes over to inspect my belongings. He discards practically every thing I've packed, and gives me a lecture on the importance of saving weight. Angrily I re-examine my pile and grudgingly remove an extra novel, my towel, pocket-knife and a couple of t-shirts.
Sergeant Nathan uncrosses his arms to remove more. Deodorant ... gone! Extra socks, spare underwear ... gone! I wince and scowl as my pile is halved, but when my raincoat and thermal layers disappear for storage, I decide enough is enough. I have a horror of being cold.
'We're going into the mountains,' I remind him.
Like two volcanoes venting off steam we rage back and forth, until eventually my raincoat crosses back over to me as some sort of compromise. When Nathan's not looking I surreptitiously slide a book back in my pack. And a week's worth of underwear. And my soap, facecloth, pocket mirror and an extra t-shirt.
I feel better now we've fought. As if I can be myself again, instead of being on my best behaviour all the time as a demonstration of appreciation for the way he's looking after me. I wonder if mail-order brides and adopted orphans feel this way? You're so vulnerable when you're dependent on someone else's kindness.
The railway station is within walking distance of our hotel. I feel a thrill of excitement as we lumber down the street in our packs. I'm not exactly sure where we are going, but at least we're leaving Beijing.
The woman behind the counter looks puzzled as Nathan attempts to pronounce the name of the city we want to reach. We're heading north, bound for a section of the wall that Nathan hasn't yet walked. Eventually he produces his map, and the woman's confusion dissolves into smiles as he points at our destination: 'Aaah! Xuan Hua!'
If it were left to me, I doubt we'd get out of the station. The tickets are printed with unintelligible characters. Nathan is as illiterate as me at reading Mandarin, but at least he understands what people are saying when they tell him where to find our train.
The station square is a large expanse of concrete, almost buried under a spread of dishevelled men and women lounging against sacking bundles of luggage as they wait for their trains. People watch as I wait for Nathan to return from the toilet – a thousand impassive eyes staring me up and down. Nobody returns my smiles. And people keep on staring as we take our seats on the train. A man sitting by us pumps Nathan for information about who we are and where we're from, loudly repeating Nathan's replies for the benefit of the other passengers. But although some give us a smile, most continue to observe us with looks that seem coldly expressionless.
Classical music blasts through the train as we pull out from the station. My parting image of Beijing is of an endless expanse of concrete apartment blocks piling into the sky. We pass across fields of tilled soil and then, quite suddenly, we are chugging through a chain of mountains as sharp as thorns.
'It's like a dragon,' Nathan says.
The flanks of the beast are covered in scale-like rocks, as if all the flesh were removed long, long ago. Now the peasants scrape a living amongst its bony ridges.
Open-mouthed, I peer through the grimy window and watch the ancient, yellow-hued landscape unfold. It's so dry. Bare trees, a few withered husks protruding from stony paddy terraces, and everywhere else just dust and rock. And then, as suddenly as they appeared, the mountains seem to sink back into the ground and the train reconnects with the wide, brown plains of rural China.
Late afternoon sunlight casts long black shadows across the platform when we arrive at Xuan Hua station. Men stretching out on their rickshaws stir into action as we approach. We've travelled only four or five hours from Beijing but already it feels as if we've crossed into a different, quieter world.
While we are hunting for a cheap hotel room, Nathan suddenly turns in the motor-tricycle taxi to laugh at my expression. 'What are you seeing?' he asks me.
Excerpted from Embracing the Dragon by Polly Greeks. Copyright © 2006 Polly Greeks. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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