Agent's first trip to China


Agent's first trip to China

A visit to anywhere in China, the most inhabited country on the planet, can leave any traveller feeling engulfed by the sprawling masses who call this great stretch of land their home.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nation's capital, Beijing. The city is home to nearly 20 million people - a number that is growing at a rapid rate every year. Yet this figure does not take into account the huge numbers of foreign tourists who take the plunge and visit this fascinating country.

Beijing is probably the most popular introduction to this country, and as you look around at each passer-by in this grand city, you cannot help but notice an expression of urgency on everyone's faces. Like in any other big metropolis, these people have places to go, people to see, and things to do. In this rapidly developing nation, things move fast indeed.
I am clearly not a local here though. I have just arrived in the People's Republic of China after an arduous 24 hour, non-stop train journey from the former British colony, Hong Kong. I chose not to fly here as I didn't want my first impression of China to be some sterile airport environment. 

They say you only ever have one chance to make a first impression. I want mine to be something more than runways, luggage carousels and a vast maze of impersonal corridors. I want to experience the thrill of being situated in a totally new space; a place where the foreign screams at you from all angles. And this is what I am rewarded with.

Upon exiting the central Beijing train station, it all seems so surreal. I am confronted with hordes of people, some dressed entirely in black - long black coats, black shoes, black hats, while others sport the latest designer brands. The former are the anonymous workers of this land who cannot yet afford the luxury of air travel. And the latter are the new rising middle-class of Chinese, intent on accumulating wealth and improving their station in life. Some are frantically walking about, while others sit, patiently waiting for the arrival of the many trains that pass through here. Indeed, this train station - originally built in 1901 during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) - is afflicted by the country's greatest railway congestion; an accurate indicator of the traffic conditions that await outside.

As I make my way from the station I am constantly stared at - from the young urban sophisticates to the middle-aged manual labourers with hard, leathery hands. I am utterly foreign to them, a stranger in their land. But if I look long enough - just long enough - a smile appears, and this makes me smile too. This fascinating mix of big city life and curiosity among Beijing locals is quite charming to the traveller. And you can experience this upon first exiting the central Beijing train station.

The cityscape around the station tells a story of contrasts. Semi-erected buildings stand next to crumbled remains. Immaculately manicured gardens sit next to vacant lots, littered with commercial refuse. Modern, glass and concrete buildings tower over the older dwellings. On first impressions, Beijing is truly a city undergoing a massive transformation; evidence of this is everywhere. And it's an exciting time to be here in the middle of it all.

After unpacking my suitcase at the hotel, I venture off to explore this city and its people. I have just enough time left in the day to make a visit to the infamous Tiananmen Square. Dressing warmly to brave the cold April air, I walk outside and make my way towards the nearest subway station. As I walk down the stairs into the cavernous underground, the sounds of car horns give way to the roaring thunder of an approaching train.

I soon arrive at my destination - this broad open expanse of slated concrete, surrounded by majestic structures at each end, is one of the largest public square in the world. Here you'll find small children flying their kites, bold young Chinese intent on practising their English with foreign tourists and vendors of all sorts.

Interestingly, it's here, under the gentle flapping of the Chinese flag, that you can purchase the world's second most published book, the Little Red Book, which is also known as The Quotations of Mao Zedong in English. Owning a copy of this book used to be mandatory during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Not owning a copy could be seen as a rejection of Chairman Mao's way and offenders risked being severely punished. However, these days, this piece of political literature serves only as an interesting souvenir.

As I make my way back to the hotel, I am glad I entered Beijing by rail instead of by air. By arriving in this way, I am instantly confronted with the thriving city of Beijing - in all its complexities. These were my first impressions of China, and over the next 30 days I travel extensively throughout this great land and back to Hong Kong. I will never forget those first moments after exiting the central Beijing train station. Those moments - however surreal - have stayed fresh in my mind. 
Next time you travel, consider your point of entry. You only ever have one chance to experience a country for the first time. And it is these first impressions that are so pivotal to the entire travel experience.