Everything is as it Appears
Well, we made it. At times it felt as though we wouldn’t, which may have been more about tiredness than anything else. It really does start to feel as though you’re participating in a quest, and must pass many obstacles before you reach your destination. I have a sense of déjà vu as I type this, so I’m pretty sure I have described it this way before. It’s just the way it goes.
You definitely do get better at travelling. A couple of ‘oh, f*ck’ moments in the past mean I now make a point of having screen shots of my flight and accommodation details, because there is always a form that will ask you for one or the other and internet data is only ever conspicuous in its absence. And I always have a pen, because the counters to fill out your entry forms will undoubtedly provide one on a too-short chain for every 17.5 passengers. There isn’t anything to be done about the queues though, for everything from checking in and security, to bathrooms and coffee. Throw in a hefty language barrier and some sleep deprivation, and things can get testy.
One of the most fascinating things about China, or of the very small slice I have seen of it so far, is the behaviour of its people in queues. Or, at least, what appears to be their thinly-veiled contempt for them. It doesn’t seem to matter which queue you are standing in, chances are there will be several attempts at jumping it. This could take the form of putting a harried expression on one’s face and approaching the counter directly, interrupting the person being served, to express how terribly urgent one’s situation is; or holding a phone up and waving it back and forth, so the attendant can presumably see the illuminated urgency displayed on its face; or shuffling papers around and sighing, oh-so-loudly, then losing patience and having to call out to the attendant, holding the urgent papers aloft. On the plane, you either get off last or you participate in some nudging. Ditto picking up your luggage.
I find it fascinating, and thought about it endlessly while I stood in the queues that I would never have had the audacity to jump. But what really is audacity? And politeness? And how do we come to believe they mean what they mean? One the one hand, you could argue that it is impossible for the concept of the queue, being served in the order in which you arrive, to be unreasonable. One the other, it’s not as if you get a special queueing crown to wear around that reads ‘I wait!’, so others can identify who to congratulate. All you really have to show for believing the world should be fair is less time and a vague sense of self-righteousness at your ability to be polite.
I will definitely keep tut-tutting while I wait (fairly) in queues, mind you…I guess a part of me wonders what it would be like to be a jumper though. Perhaps one day I shall give it a try – a good bus seat can literally make or break my day.
Alright, back to the trials. We stood in long queues. We missed our flight. They re-booked us on one for 12 hours later. I cried. They gave us a room.
Despite the delay in seeing Katherine, our Beijing sojourn picked up a little from here. We had a nap, which saved me from having to think about why we might need gas masks…
…then we went for a walk, where a gent driving a cross between a Thai tuk-tuk and a miniature van, beckoned enthusiastically for us to get in.
‘Should we take the bull by the horns?’ my mother asked, ‘And get him to take us for a ride?’ Feeling uncharacteristically anti-risk, I declined, a decision I recall with some regret. In my defence, I had been weakened by queue jumpers, and doubted my ability to make anything happen. Instead, we returned to our hotel for lunch.
Oh, the food! Sweet and sour pork, as I had never tasted. Green beans and noodles, delicious beyond comprehension. We really aught have tried the dishes with the more questionable English translations, like ‘Vinegar Slap’ and ‘Boutique Blood’ but, as I said, I was in low-risk mode.
I over-ate (no regrets there), enjoying the spectacular kitsch of the blue velvet lounges, watching the televisions screens of the kitchen, and the huge tables of men, spinning their lazy susans of the interesting stuff, smoking and looking at their phones (at one stage, before the food came, I thought they were praying, because the table was silent, and all eyes looked downward. True story).
As I sat on the shuttle on the way back to the airport, looking out of the window, I marvelled at the feeling of not understanding anything, let alone the language. I think that’s what I love about travelling – the not understanding. I don’t know why the trees have tripod supports (a commitment to straightness? shallow-rooted trees?), or why the airline passengers hit their backs with balls on the end of sticks. The boiling water is a mystery (drink? clean chopsticks? ask for tea?), as is the non-wearing of seat belts. I don’t know who or what is attractive, or why the hell everyone tries to jump the queues.
I don’t understand anything. Everything is exactly as it appears, no more and no less. The only thing to understand, therefore, is why I feel about it as I do.
It is grand.
Next stop, Jiamusi, and the incredible Katherine.