China – a brave new world

Published: July 10, 2016
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The Forbidden City lured me in. The place that was a royal abode has 9,999 rooms and people in the past needed special permission to enter it. PHOTO: AYESHA SALEEM

Think of China for a second and images of Manchurian with hot sauce and lots of ketchup will come to mind. Think for a few seconds longer and you will be thinking about dragons, chop sticks, an alien language and possibly one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Now picture a country that has preserved its culture and adopted many features and aspects of the world that are familiar to you. Picture a country that, in its attempt to merge the old and new, the conventional and the extraordinary, has inevitably begotten a brave new macrocosm.

Be there or be square

Galileo’s theory about celestial bodies’ remains something that I had read in books or watched on the television, but China gave me a physical manifestation of ancient beliefs.

People in the earlier days believed that heaven was round and the Earth was square. They built the magnificent Temple of Heaven according to that. The central temple is a circular structure, surrounded by square walls.

Temple of Heaven
Photo: Ayesha Saleem

People working out outside the temple of Heaven
Photo: Yusra Hayat

What I think is even more fascinating is the fact that China has defined and used historical spaces to create a new identity in the world. The Temple of Heaven built in 1422 has become one of the largest exercise and work-out parks in Beijing. While the nation has managed to preserve its heritage site, it has also managed to benefit many modern day residents – dictating new uses of old spaces.

Assimilating experiences

Most structures that have stood the test of time create awe in an onlooker. I have always seen historic structures staring at me with pride in their immortality.

However, buildings and relics of the past in China reminded me that while they made history and saw it pass by, they did not transcend human experiences and were but an assimilation of them all.

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications that is 2,300-years-old. Most of the wall was part built during Ming dynasty and very little of what Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, created by connecting separate walls built to prevent foreign invasions, remains. Standing at Badaling Pass after climbing the Wall, I was lost in more than 20 centuries of history from the top.

Yellow, yellow, royal fellow

The Forbidden City lured me in. The place that was a royal abode has 9,999 rooms and people in the past needed special permission to enter it. While the clock towers, paintings, statues and even the crown amazed me, my true foreigner moment was when I realised that the roofs of all buildings were yellow, because purple did not make it to the imperial line in this part of the world.

The Forbidden City. Photo Ayesha Saleem

Temple of Heaven.
Photo: Ayesha Saleem

#Girlsatdhabas

Meijiawu village and tea plantation outside Hangzhou gave me the perfect dhaba setting. The way I would make my way to a tea stall after a busy working day in Karachi, stopping by at the various roundtable tea shops in this part of China, away from the smog, felt no different.

Meijiwau village tea shops.
Photo: Ayesha Saleem

Tea plantation outside Hangzhou.
Photo: Yusra Hayat

I saw hundreds of IT students flock to a few tables, bringing the tall fresh tea glasses to their eyes in a bid to soothe them. Obviously, I had to imitate them and the therapeutic effect of green and jasmine tea was quite surprising.

Tea was delicious, it tasted nothing like the ones I have had before and the plate of pumpkin seeds served alongside disappeared before I knew it.

The tea shops are run almost entirely by women (in some cases assisted by men), since they are the ones who wake up before the crack of dawn to pick leaves each morning.

The woman serving at my table kept pouring hot water into my glass – a handful of leaves with water refills gave me at least three tall glasses within a few minutes. Most people from China also eat the leaves after sipping tea.

Tasting familiarity with a twist

Standing at the bund in Shanghai, overlooking its skyline gave me a setting similar to Dumbo near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Moreover, Shanghai World Finance Centre, Orient Pearl Tower, multiple banks in Beijing, skyscrapers in the newer part of the country, shopping streets like Wangfujing, Nanjing, and Hefang, Expo Park, bars and clubs in French Quarters and dozens of theatres and orchestras reminded me of the west.

However, let’s not forget this is China where its culture and past hide behind the façade of modernity to give it an inclusive demeanour.

The country gave me a setting that I was comfortable in and the moment I got carried away by shopping in a lane in Shanghai with lights and big glass doors, the 400-year-old Yuyuan Garden built during the reign of the Ming dynasty close by reminded me that I was in the People’s Republic.

Yuyuan Garden.
Photo: Yusra Hayat

The extensive Chinese garden that houses furniture made of tree roots centuries ago and was partially destroyed during Opium Wars and Taiping Revolution reiterated the fact that I was in a place that rests on historic and modern poetic imagination, refusing to be subsumed by a cohesive theory.

Eat a lotus

Once I had managed to clean my palate off all known spices and preconceived notions, the simplicity of the food (lunch served between 11am-2pm and dinner between 5pm-8pm) actually appealed to me.

Chinese cuisine.
Photo: Yusra Hayat

Meals varied but usually had roasted duck, spicy chicken with oyster shaped bread, grilled lamb, fried broccoli and kale, cooked lotus plant, ink fish, shelled shrimps with iced tea, root beer, cherries and sliced dragon fruit and watermelon.

Fruit stall in Beijing.
Photo: Yusra Hayat

Lotus flower that tasted like a sweet potato and beef cooked with a variety of spicy vegetables were my favourite meals.

Starfish at a vendor’s display
Photo: Yusra Hayat

I did not become a fan of Mongolian Hot Pot where I had to dip raw meat and Chinese fungus into a boiling hot pot and then dip them in peanut butter sesame sauce. While the sauce was delicious, the meat and fungus were too bland for my taste.

Thus with a kiss, I die

Just when I thought I was getting used to China and its ways, the country took me to Songcheng Park where a Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet was being performed.

Songcheng Park.
Photo: Yusra Hayat

Songcheng Park.
Photo: Yusra Hayat

I always associated China with acrobatics and KungFu shows, which by the way are way more engaging and captivating live than what I had seen in the media. But, I could not imagine a 3D musical about unrequited love. “The legend of the White Snake,” “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” mesmerised and saddened me despite being performed in a language I had little or no grasp over.

(And mind you, the language barrier is extreme – I was frantically typing figures into calculators and using sign language to bargain at marketplaces and to navigate through the country. Who would have thought mathematics would actually save the day?)

China is a country that mocked my efforts to place it in a neat category for its complexities and multiple skins of narratives defy a grand theme. It is a world that I grew to love in a very short span of time.

Yusra Hayat

Yusra Hayat

The author has a Bachelor’s in English Literature from LUMS. She is a sub-editor at The Express Tribune Peshawar desk. She tweets at @hayat55y (twitter.com/hayat55y)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.