I visited China for the first time in the summer of 2010. As an overseas born Chinese I had heard innumerable stories and nostalgia of the old China from my grandparents as well as tales from family and friends who had visited China in recent years. However, nothing could prepare me for modern China. I arrived in Beijing late in the evening to the gigantic space age structure of Beijing international airport. It was like being dropped in the middle of a futuristic science fiction movie, perhaps a vision of the future world to come.
Kerry Song poses in front of a Beijing-Lhasa train in undated photo. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
The first thing to hit me about China was the sheer scale of everything, gigantic airport terminals, train stations, the modernity of downtown Beijing and teeming humanity. The economic progress in the past thirty years was astounding, a long, long way from my grandparents' memories. I did the usual sightseeing like all tourists, Tiananmen Square, the hutongs, the awesome Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, Summer Palace and deplored the pollution that hung over the city but my most lasting impressions is not just the majesty and grandeur of the sights but the teeming Chinese tourists who outnumbered the foreign tourists a hundred fold, the people's sense of pride in the new modern China and being Chinese.
My introduction to China was happily eased into by a Chinese friend, Xun, who came to Beijing to meet my friends and me. She and her family made our trip to Beijing particularly memorable where it was not just the impressions of tour sights, hotels and airports but of the hospitality and generosity of the Chinese. We were introduced to wonderful Beijing cuisine, gorgeous restaurants and vegetarian fare including the beautiful Xi He Ya Yuan restaurant housed in a restored ancient building in downtown Beijing where we feasted on Beijing duck and exquisite dishes which I would never have otherwise tasted. It was such unexpectedly glorious northern Chinese cuisine, being more familiar with the southern Chinese cuisine to be found among the Chinese Diaspora overseas. It was a week of discovery for me, of food, ancient Chinese history and modern China.
From Beijing we journeyed to Tibet, our Chinese friend, Xun, joining us on our odyssey. From the city we travelled headlong into countryside. The western station for the train to Tibet was another humongous superstructure, a staggeringly confusing maze which we could never negotiate without Xun. The train journey to Lhasa took two days and two nights and our four berth sleeper train compartment was comfortable. Surprisingly there were very few foreigners on the train journey. Apart from us there were only two small groups of French and Danes. Perhaps it was to be expected as the train tickets to Tibet was notorious difficult to obtain, a feat we would never managed without our Chinese friends. My grasp of Mandarin was too limited to be useful and travelling with a Chinese citizen made our journey in China easier and particularly memorable for we saw the country not just as tourists but also through a Chinese citizen's eyes.
The long train journey to Lhasa was worth every moment. Before the end of the first day the train began to snake inexorably up the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, travelling at an average of 150kph. At over 4000 metres above sea level, oxygen was regularly released into the train compartments to ease altitude sickness. The scenery was absolutely stunning, beautiful and forbidding all at the same time. The incredibly green high altitude grasslands lined the route and snow capped mountains began peeping from the background between peaks. Periodically herds of yaks and Tibetan herdsmen could be seen with their herds in the formidable mountains. The Himalayas did fail to awe, striking mere onlookers like us into awed silence as we tried to absorb the sights. The only sound to be heard among the travellers was the furious clicking of camera lens as we tried futilely to capture the grandeur. The lofty Himalayas were imprinted in my brain as no other mountains I had ever seen.
Then the train journey's end, Lhasa, our gateway to Tibet and we took our compulsory "we had arrived" picture together. The cool mountain air was clear, clean and the sky a deep clear blue. The young handsome Tibetan guide quickly found us and draped a welcoming white silk scarf around each of us. The long soft tresses of the scarf floated and tangled in the mountain breeze. His sun brown, high cheek bones, angular features and dark eyes crinkled in a wide smile welcoming us to Tibet in English. I knew I was in another world and culture, even in China.
At 3,600 metres above sea level, Lhasa is the highest city in the world. It is unexpectedly modern as Western documentaries had only shown the old city, a modern city with its shops, restaurants and businesses offering modern consumerism and comforts juxtaposed alongside ancient Tibetan culture and religiosity where Sichuan spicy cuisine is just readily available as Tibetan fare, both I liberally sampled. Food, glorious food makes a journey that extra special.
The Potala Palace majestically overlooked the city against the backdrop of the Himalayas from every direction. Our Tibetan style hotel was located right in the bustling heart of old Tibet oozing Tibetan Buddhism and culture. Inside the old city with its colourful Tibetan architecture and proliferation of little Tibetan teahouses it was easy to forget that the modern world existed as we meandered leisurely through the Barkhor street markets to the 7th Century Jokhang Monastery. We marvelled at the jewel encrusted Buddhas, the haze of incense and the ancient architecture that had withstood more than a millennium of time and the present generation who sang and sang throatily as they worked on the restoration of the roof of the Jokhang. Outside the Jokhang I gazed in wonder at the utter devoutness of the Tibetan Buddhist worshippers, prostrating themselves over and over again on the ground outside the Jokhang oblivious to the milling crowds of people. As an agnostic as well as intellectual Buddhist I was not quite comfortable with such devout religious rituals. Yet I admired the total devotion that I was incapable of, filled with wonder at the worshippers and the mountains that spawn such mystic devotional practices, for Tibetan Buddhism seemed to have taken a form and rituals unique only to Tibet and the Himalayas. Impatiently I waited for the following day when we really begin our journey beyond Lhasa and into the shadows of the sacred Himalayas where the spirits of the mountains preside.