Day 153 - Beijing

Our next journey was longer than average. 14,000 miles separated its beginning and end, or rather its end and its beginning for we were leaving this new world and returning to the old. From Rio to São Paulo and a couple of days in Bogota of table-tennis (82-0 Michael, eighty two - nil) and quinoa education before another flight north to Los Angeles via Miami. 24 hours in the city of angels gave enough time for a stroll along Santa Monica Boulevard with its parade of entertainers, freaks and pot peddlers. Tanned, athletic bodies pumped volleyballs back and forth on Venice Beach. Clean streets, straight lines, faintly familiar conventions. Even my fingernails, usually blackened with transit, were a pristine white through no doing of my own. Skateboarders looped and leapt along the promenade, sharks fought over morsels at the aquarium and the Hollywood sign remained elusive. After a wholesome dawdle there were two happy travellers when a pub was found stocking both cider and Newcastle Brown Ale. The novelty pushed us slightly toward overindulgence considering the next flight was mere hours away. In fact a couple of audacious queue jumps were required at the airport to ensure we made our flight and the third we did just for fun. I hadn't seen a place like this since my first visit to India in 2009. Viscous noise, a language in an unfathomable script and people...everywhere. Beijing wrestled with my senses in a way that perhaps nowhere else has in 3 years. I felt again like the green traveller I was back then, taking childish delight in things like Coke cans in hanzi (Chinese script). I recalled the feelings I had on first stepping into India's hot, smogged sun. The wonderous foreigness of it all, the world upside down that lay before me. It was heady and headaching (the car horns anyway) but intoxicatingly moreish. I hope I never run out of places like that to visit as I hope I will lever run out of adjectives to draw them. There was only a waking day to pass in China's heaving capital so we beelined for the people-lined Tiananmen Square. Indeed a long line of people jagged back and forth across the square like a game of snake got out of hand. Officials desperately laid more rope barriers at the rear to contain its rapid growth. Other party workers barked through megaphones at anyone who strayed from the state-sanctioned path. Out of the naivety created by Lonely Planet's cruel abandonment or maybe just because we're English we joined the queue in ignorance of its destination. And we shall ever wonder for we were ejected from it 5 minutes later, Michael for wearing flip-flops (a thing of no little wonder in Beijing) and me, well I guess the official just didn't like me. Dismayed but unbowed (probably a cultural faux-pas) we set off in search of the Forbidden City that alledgedly sat somewhere on the square's perimeter. A tourist information centre that spoke no English, a helpful but similarly linguistically limited tour guide and several maps failed to aid in its locating. We did eventually find the city under a giant portrait of Mao, a great leap forward after an hour of searching. Walking among its cypress trees was a pleasant respite from the press of people outside. We discovered the little red flags on sale from street vendors outside the walls were due to the fact it was National Day and wasn't just regular patriotic fervour. In contrast to the square the Forbidden City was relatively quiet, perhaps on this of all days reconciling the Communist (ish) present with the imperial past is more difficult? Maybe it also explains the rather shoddy presentation of artifacts within the old palace and general lackadasical maintenance. Better that though, I suppose, that the over-enthusiatic restoration that has blighted other Chinese sights like the Great Wall. The vast National Museum provided more hours diversion that we had remaining (and covered more miles than Michael had left in his feet) but a brisk pace took in the hundreds of thousands of years of history contained in the basement. The Cultural Revolution received its own treatment on a separate level, its coverage, at times, almost amusingly incomplete. China, from the briefest of glimpes that I had seen is an entralling country. A country in which high idealism battles human desire and the old certainty of control cedes to new, neon-tinged freedoms. But I wax lyrical, I know not enough, necesito regresar. That, I say with a note of sadness, is the last Spanish I will use for sometime. Back to loud, hopeful English and creative gesture for as we make the short hop from Beijing to Bangkok the Americas are truly, distantly behind us. And what of these 5 months? Those 150 days? How does one summarise 16 countries and so many miles of travel? What pathetic fallacy can do it justice? Am I the wiser for it? Heavens if not! But still, everyday life finds new ways to test your wisdom, to throw all certainty into doubt and confusion. And sometimes the more you see the less you understand and I have surely seen a lot. But see you must. Sweat and shiver, laugh and cry. Walk until your feet burn, swim until your hands shrivel. Listen until your eardrums ache and stare into the sun until your eyes scorch. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience, and if it hurts, you know what? It was probably worth it (The Beach, 2000). So the only wisdom or advice I could offer you is to see the world for yourself. Because it is there, because it is beauty.

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