I’ve always been the kind of person who makes lists: things to do, people to meet, places to visit…you name it. It’s always been about having experiences and imbibing as much as I possibly can.
However one thing that was not on any of my lists was “visiting the motherland”. I look more Chinese than Indian but definitely feel more Indian than Chinese. It’s always been a bit confusing for me just as it has been for those staring at me.
Curiosity of what exactly is home got the better of me and I found myself in Beijing feeling like a sponge, trying to soak up as much as I could. Beijing felt like any other big metropolis. It’s fast, organised and populated with hordes of people wirelessly connected to one other. The city was like a well-oiled machine.
My personal experience in this city revolved around staying in this little oasis called Peking University. Peking also means Beijing, thus the famous ‘Peking duck’ is locally called ‘Beijing duck’. The university itself was quite unique, not only for its high level of education, world class facilities and traditional Chinese architecture but also for the very distinct vibe I got from the people studying and living within its walls. They seemed very content in doing what they wanted and being who they are. Everything was too perfect, almost simulated in a way. It was all about high fives, group hugs and impromptu bursts into song. I termed it the ‘Brady bunch syndrome’.
“Yungang Grottoes, Datong”
My first real memory of this trip was that of “the lake”. Situated in the middle of Peking University, it completely fit what I had imagined China would be like in my mind’s eye: serene, peaceful and picture perfect. I don’t think any number of superlatives could successfully describe what I felt and saw sitting on the banks of this beautiful lake.
“Hanging Monastries, Datong”
When in China, do as the Chinese and what the Chinese love to do is to eat. It seemed as if everywhere I looked; someone was munching, gulping and chewing on something or the other. The tales of eating snake meat, fried scorpions and sheep intestines might be true to a certain extent but as long as you’re not a strict vegetarian, are decently dexterous with chopsticks and just a tad adventurous you’ll be just fine. Every meal was an experience in itself: from street side breakfast buns with bacon, cheese and egg to delicious stir fried veggies and lamb with unlimited sticky rice at the local canteen. The food was not only gob-smackingly delicious but also extremely gratifying for both the body and the soul.
“Food for thought, Beijing”
I managed to go on a little backpacking adventure that started with the town of Datong. Situated six hours away by train, the place was small, quaint and seemed to consist of one long road that encompassed the entire town. A car ride away from Datong were the ‘Hanging Monasteries’, nestled in between two large mountains this spectacular piece of architecture hung almost parallel to the mountain face and left me completely awestruck. Another must visit while in Datong are the Yungang grottoes, known for its cave art paintings and innumerable Buddha statues. It makes for a good day trip and provides travellers adequate opportunities to acquaint themselves with local history.
“The Great Wall of China”
After a stopover in Xi’an where we saw the famous Terracotta warriors, we made our way further south to the Zhangjiajie National Forest in the Hunan province. As we moved further away from civilisation and came closer to the majestic cloud covered peaks of Wulingyuan, I could clearly see why people think ‘Avatar’ was inspired by this place. It really felt like we were in a movie.
“Click at Tian Than, Beijing”
The National Park itself is a place I would love to get lost in. Think rain forests, mountain peaks, river streams, natural water pools and a quaint little travel lodge to call home. This place was perfect. We spent over five days exploring its vast expanse and quite honestly we could happily have spent five more. Every day was an adventure where I was blown away by what I saw and what I experienced. I would stop, stare and think to myself, ‘This is the most beautiful place I have ever been to’.
The last part of our journey was an unscheduled visit to ‘Huang Long Dong’ or Yellow Dragon Cave. This was an underground labyrinth made of limestone and shaped by the river that ran through it. A series of stalactites and stalagmites surrounded us as we walked through this maze in almost complete darkness. The highlight of Huang Long Dong must be the underground boat ride that we took through the cave.
“Terracotta Soldiers, Xian”
Looking back, this trip made me realise how similar India and China really are. Both are shrouded in mystery and come with their own set of stereotypes. The people are loud, rash, love their food and can easily be spotted in a crowd: for reasons you’ll know once you go there.
“The lake at Peking University, Beijing”
I left thinking as clichéd as it may sound that maybe China could really be my home away from home.
“Peking University, Beijing”
Written and photographed by: Leon Lu