The ascent was steep, my bag felt heavier, the top seemed farther. I broke into a sweat even though the temperature was -8 degrees celsius. I stopped, panting with my hands on my knees. Determined to complete the journey, I looked up to see the sun shine across the top of the pagoda – I was nearly there. A grin spread across my face and with a renewed sense of satisfaction, I broke into a run for the last few metres. As I reached the top of the Great Wall of China, I felt a sigh of relief. It has been exactly one year since I had parted ways with my job as a Oil Trader in the City of London. Had anyone told me that day that one year down the line, I would be climbing the Great Wall of China, I would’ve laughed. But life has a way of surprising me in ways that I can never imagine and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Traveling alone across one of the biggest countries on the planet, both geographically and demographically, was a brilliant experience. My extremely limited knowledge of the language (I only knew Ni Hao which roughly translates to ‘hello’, I later learnt Xie Xie which is ‘thank you’) proved to be both a challenge and source of interesting stories. This included being escorted by a police officer to buy a metro rail ticket, getting stared at endlessly by young kids who pointed me out to visibly embarrassed parents, laughing heartily with a roadside Litchi seller as he tried to explain the cost of a kilo to me using only sign language, being stopped by schoolkids who wanted to have their photographs taken with me and many more. One fortnight was definitely not sufficient to fully explore the rich history of China but I did my best to absorb as much as I could in the given time span.
Personally, I loved Beijing for that sense of rich history and culture which enveloped the entire city and I really felt that I needed to spent more than 4 days there to do it justice. The journey on the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai (covering around 1,300km in under 5 hours) showed me a completely different side of China, filled with agricultural landscapes as well as arid land. As the train approached Shanghai, the landscape slowly changed with buildings starting to dot the skyline. Shanghai could almost be called a separate country with an insane level of development that overshadows the rest of China. There wasn’t much to see in terms of monuments as such but simply sitting at The Bund while people watching was an activity in itself. The third and final stop of my journey, Suzhou (popularly dubbed as the Venice of the East) was a very beautiful town. While it also had its own share of skyscrapers and modern development, the centre of the town was mostly filled with gardens and canals which made for a very pleasant experience. Definitely need to return there sometime.
Culturally, I felt that China was very similar to India and the similarities in the mannerisms of the people was instantly evident to me. Barring the obvious physical differences, I felt at home in certain parts of China and think given enough time, I think that I would’ve been able to settle in well without much qualms. Just like India, China also displayed a high level of inequality and this became obvious to me while walking around Shanghai. On one road, you would spot Rolls Royces and Bentleys and just a couple of blocks down the road on a side alley, there would be tiny houses with large families living in them. And just like India, people didn’t seem to give a second thought about this.
In the end, China taught me a lot of things. It taught me to bargain in a language that I had virtually zero knowledge of. It made me build renewed respect for the art of pointing and sign language. It taught me that a smile is a symbol that transcends borders and generations. It taught me that people, no matter where they are from, are essentially the same deep down inside. And perhaps most importantly, it taught me to believe in myself and to go with the flow of life.
Currently listening to – It Must Have Been Love by Roxette