They say that olives are an acquired taste. That you have to eat twelve of them before you start to enjoy them. After forcing down twelve, through either magic or some kind of perverse Stockholm syndrome, you realise you want more olives.
Such is life in Beijing. Some take to the sprawling metropolis like ducks to water. They are amazed at the sheer volume of people, at the multitude of attractions, a city with one of the most complex histories of any on earth. Some however have come from more alpine temperaments. Switzerland, my home, is a country of just eight million people, less than two thirds as many as those who call Beijing, a single city, their home.
In Switzerland, you can drink the water from any fountain. On the train, there’s usually a seat and at the very least, breathing room.. When the weather is nice, you can across pristine countryside to snowcapped Alps that guard the horizon.
Beijing tap water has to be boiled before consumption. The subway (which includes mandatory airport scanners as security) offers a system of travel by which, by virtue of the press of bodies, means your feet never have to touch the ground. As for the quality of air, well in Beijing you can taste the clouds. They do not taste fresh.
The city is, therefore, about as far from Switzerland as it is possible to be. The culture shock is something incredible. Arriving in a city almost eight thousand kilometres from your own, where they don’t speak the same language as you is a shock to the system; “overwhelming is the only appropriate word. Who would have thought loneliness could find you in a city of 14 million people?
Over the next two weeks I would be ripped off. I would be verbally abused, laughed at and trodden on. I would get lost and damn near run over. The water was unsafe and the air made me sick. The architecture was grotesque and the People’s Government disapproves of Google.
And yet. If travel has proven one thing to me, it is the abundance of human kindness. On my first day, a kind Indonesian woman took me to lunch. Four days in, upon stumbling into his shop, the owner sat me down and gave me tea and we talked about everything from tea, to travel, to the world cup in Rio de Janiero. In my last night, a Polish girl invited me to go with her friends to eat the largest pizza I had ever seen.
Upon reflection, and reflection is needed, Beijing is a wholly remarkable place. There is a KFC on every corner, but rice is offered as a side. You can’t see to the edge of the city, but if you could you would see the mountains that are home to the Great Wall. Google is behind a fire wall, but the censors allow 1984 to be translated into Mandarin, a book which now sits proudly on my shelf.
I had two weeks in Beijing, and my god was I glad to get back. It had felt at times like I was in a prison. But it also felt like the sentence wasn’t quite long enough.