The Great Wall Inside
It’s almost 4am. My body can’t work out when it’s supposed to be asleep. I’ve been in bed dreaming of new ideas, but I can’t work out which are good ones and which are half-hallucinations.
I’m in Beijing. Right now I’m in the bathroom of my presidential suite of a 5 star hotel that’s opposite the Bird’s Nest, the ridiculous olympic stadium from 2008. It sounds glamorous, it is I suppose, but we have this room by accident, if there is such a thing.
We left at 5pm on Monday from London, a couple of hours into the flight, watching American romcoms that were neither rom nor com, we are asked to close all of our blinds because the sun is going to rise soon. Being told the sun is going to rise a few hours after having left 5pm is a mentally and physically challenging think to wrap my head around. The thing is, I don’t know when the sun rose. I keep sneaking a peak behind the blinds, looking out into the pitch blackness, sometimes I see beams of light harvesting under billowing clouds, mostly it is just black. Somewhere between two of the times that I check, the sun is up.
On the travel map, it says we are quite far north, as if we had flown north and east from London. Since China isn’t north and east from England, I relearn that to fly to China from London, we fly up, because, it turns out — the world isn’t flat after all. I remember my old friend, Vectors.
In the present. I am working on Grace’s slim Apple. I am quite deeply in love with it. Tim just walked in, sleepy and chatty and we had a lovely conversation about everything so far at 4am in the bathroom of a hotel in the middle of Beijing. Steve Jobs, I really love this computer, may I have one?
I didn’t sleep on the flight. I watch 3 movies and listen to the whole of James and the Giant Peach read by Jeremy Irons (who was Scar in the Lion King so I have a funny picture of Scar reading to me in his cave in the African jungle desert. Perhaps I was asleep after all.) Roald Dahl was quite dark. I love him. Also I remember desert has 1 s and dessert has 2, because you always want a second helping of the latter.
With the windows awake again and the sun streaming in and an all-loss of time, beneath us sleeps the Gobi desert. Brown, with bird’s eye shapes that look like curdled mountains. In the middle of a stretch of thousands of miles, there are base camps with tyre tracks. In the middle of the most amount of nowhere I’ve ever seen, there are people doing something. I think of bad American films.
Then the mountains end and buildings begin. They start off sparse, with red and blue rooftops. The order of the buildings is the most noticeable, though there are few, they are neat, perfectly stacked row in and row out. The further away from the mountains we fly, the denser the buildings become.
I can’t see anything green or aliveness, we are right next to the desert so it’s unsurprising. The first heart leap I have is seeing the first set of high rise housing blocks. High, dark grey, perfectly symmetrical. Ominous. Like a future movie where all the surviving humans are left in these lifeless structures fighting zombies.
Then the city pours. If you’ve ever flown into London at night, it’s a heart-bending site, the lights flicker like thousands of candles moving on a lake. Landing in Beijing, all I can see is order. Houses in rows, roads circling the buildings, buildings in rows behind the rows. This is the word of Beijing, order.
We land at 9 something am, somewhere around 3am in the morning in London. My body is losing itself in a timeless space.
The airport is so big that I don’t know if it ever ends. Everything is immaculate. If you’ve seen the Langoliers, it was like arriving into that town, airless. I wait for the beautiful gasp of fresh air that one craves after a long flight, I still haven’t had it.
Culture shock doesn’t come from the people, the language, the unfamiliar, it has come from the Great Haze. The whole city has a layer of thin pale white mist. Beautiful if it is dawn and running through the hills of a village, with a crisp bite to it. Not so if it is pure smog. Everything feels muted. Outdoors, nothing feels real, no colours feel full, no light feels bright.
The hotel we’re in now hadn’t been booked for our arrival, amongst a few other hundred logistical slips. So we stay in a 2 star hotel, a slightly plastic-y, cheap inn on our first night. I like that we get to experience both. We all sleep for a few hours, so far there are 5 of us. The two POY main guys (www.power-of-youth.org), Adam and Alex, both 27, the guy from China-who-lives-in-London (Jed) and Tim and I.
Waking up in Beijing, walking into the Great Haze and walking through the city is quite a thing. A 20 minute walk from the Jing Ping Inn to the Stadium and the Big Pool. Everything is big. Everything is flat. It feels like a toy city, only a toy city that is 10 times larger than life. I am waiting for someone to shout ‘Action’.
We don’t tip the porter. In fact, we don’t tip. In Chinese culture it’s an insult to tip because it seems as if you are saying, ‘Here, have this money that I don’t need, you probably need it’ or it can come across as an insult to whoever is employing them, suggesting that they aren’t paying their staff enough. I love this. I love that the same thing from two sides can look so different and make so much sense from whatever side it’s looked at from. As all things in life.
Tim’s university friend, John, joins us. He’s just finished a paper on String Theory and is giving talks to students about it. He is delightful and lived in China for 2 years and so has pretty impressive Mandarin. Up until a few years ago, I thought Mandarin was a type of karate. It’s quite rare for Western people to pick up Mandarin because it’s a tonal language, the opposite of ours. It’s funny when people hear him talk, they won’t register that he’s speaking their language because it doesn’t make sense to them that he could be. It reminds me of the Smack the Pony skit where a lady walks up to another and says in English, ‘Hi there could you help me?’ and the other replies in perfect English, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t understand, I don’t speak English, possibly try someone else?’. To not realise you are speaking the same language, because assumptions block the ability to accept that it could be possible. That is an obvious example, but without the language, there is still so much that we share that doesn’t get seen because of the stories we have that come in the way.
The thing that I can’t make sense of is the sound. With the Great Haze, lights are blurry, everyone seems like actors, the buildings and roads stay in their neat place. The sound, I can’t find it. For the size, the traffic, the amount of people, you would expect the roar of vibrant and thriving city. I can’t hear it. It’s like the volume of the entire place has been turned down. Whether it is the docile nature of the people, the mass expanse of space that sound has to travel in, the Great Haze that absorbs all of it, the modern cars that make a highway sound like a gentle whirr, I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound alive.
We get asked for our photo, us Westerners.
We find a restaurant and get a private room with a big round table in the middle, this makes me so happy. I love round tables and I love the turn table in the middle because I like that there are no sides. In Chinese culture, you share food. Granted, due to Communism, you share most things, but this food-sharing, I love. I love that we all eat off the same plates, that there is no ‘this is mine and this is yours’, that there is so much variety. We have dozens of plates of exquisite food of every colour and every kind. Chinese food at ‘home’ and this Chinese food are as far apart as the countries that they were bought in. The flavours burst, the colours and smells light the whole room, internal fireworks. At last, life.
With the food comes rice wine, I think they gave us petrol by mistake. The whole thing comes to 450 Yuan (the same in Rand), about 40 Pounds, about a fifth of what we would have paid for the same.
Adam, Alex, Tim and I open a bottle of whiskey in the hotel room, we sit and get to meet properly. Tim’s been working with them both for a while, this is all new for me. It is nice to finally sit.
Tim stays up to fetch Grace from the airport who is flying in from Singapore. I fall asleep for a couple of hours. I’ve worked out that my body thinks I’m having a nap because I wake up 2 hours later, full of energy, mind racing, thoughts pouring and there’s no mantra, hymn, chant, shantishantishanti, reading, relaxation or self story-telling that can put me back to sleep. I end up reading Eat, Pray, Love on my Kindle, because it’s an easy-read. It is a bizarre and perfect fit, reading about Ashrams and meditation and other worlds and India written by a hurting American woman. We may do this all in India next year.
I finally fall asleep at around 6am and am lucky enough to have time to sleep until midday. Tim and Grace go out for a breakfast of noodles while I sleep and I get woken up with coffee and a thick chocolate bun and a very beautiful and bright eyed, Grace. Grace is ridiculously impressive, she’s also a social entrepreneur and speaks 300 languages and is familiarly driven to change the world. I don’t know what we’ve all been drinking, but there is a rumbling of a great movement. A driven, passionate and deeply-good people who are committed from their core to do what they love and earn money from it and to lift the world at the same time.
Thank god Grace speaks Mandarin. She gets us taxi’s to the hotel we’re now in, the Catic Skylight, generally referred to us as the Galactica along with a few other endless Star Wars references. I very quickly see the difference between a 2 and 5 star hotel. Things shine here. After 4 years of working in the beautiful natural retreat centres, with ever-flowing greens and trees and self-sustaining gardens, there is something in me that is quite delighted and amused to be staying in a luxury hotel. I feel like an imposter (which the computer doesn’t recognise as a word and so I’m now not sure) a lot of the time, like a kid in pyjamas who is getting away hiding in someone’s suitcase.
The arrival after the taxi ride is alll kinds of ridiculous. Grace and I go to the bar for coffee, to leave the others to look after the arriving delegates and so to disperse the stress. There seems to have been miscommunications somewhere along the line, not surprising considering that we’re working with the Chinese Government, the European Commission, the Polish Embassy and someone in Greece somewhere. Part of this, is finding out that the programme starts a day later than we’d planned, a frustration for some, a small miracle for others. We move into a room that stinks of smoke, an hour later we move out again because there aren’t enough available rooms, these kind of things become normal. Our stuff gets left in the lobby. Tim gets sent to have meeting with PR people of some kind. Grace and I have an afternoon off.
We both desperately want to see The Great Wall, but find out it’s over 2.5 hours away. So we settle for Tiannemen square (which I can’t spell), it’s at the centre of the city, where the violent protests in 1989 ended with over 300 students killed. Where ex president and Communist Leader, Mao, is buried, where the Forbidden City (where Emperors used to live) is now open to the public. We arrive a minute after 5pm, as it all closes. It reminds me of day in France earlier this century in May, where Tim surprised me with a trip to Paris for the day and we raced from the train station to the Louvre, running to the entrance with all our excitement making our shoes bounce, only to see a sign that we have to read over and over again, ‘The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays’. This should be internationally known information. If you are reading this, you should know, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays.
The square opposite Tiannamen (The Gate) was full of people and screens of videos (I think they were adverts) that were 100’s of metres long.
There were guards everywhere and people with cameras, it felt like we’d arrived on another movie set. We find two Germans, fairly obvious to spot in a crowd like this and they say that the flag was about to be lowered. We’d missed the big attraction, but arrived on the dot for a ceremony. Have I mentioned the Great Haze? Again. People in uniform, a crowd that doesn’t make any noise and oh, the one painful and obvious missing element of most cities, children. The one-child policy is tangible. Perhaps a working system to keep population rates down, but you can feel that there are children missing.
I watch a very young boy stroking his grandfather’s face. I remember everything I’ve ever know and forget it all at the same time.
Boys are wanted, they are adored. The few parents I have seen with their children are exquisitely loving. Children, and adults are quiet. Everything is quiet.
It’s dusk and Grace and I find a park next to The Gate. Again, it feels either haunted or like we’ve crossed over into another era. Everything is pristine, the trees don’t feel like trees, they feel as lifeless as the cement and the stone that holds them. It’s dark now and we can hear music playing, in the distance is magical set of a red building with soft old jazz coming out of it. There is no cast and crew. Just darkness, The Great Haze and this oasis. An empty tea-house.
We’re both quiet.
We start to head back, hundreds of people are on the main road, but the cars are too fast to find a taxi. We try the subway and get redirected to a bus. Grace and I are both embarrassingly excited about taking the bus. The 45 minute taxi on the way had cost 45 Yuan (about R45/4 Pounds). The bus is 1 Yuan. R1 / 10p. It is packed and it stinks. Grace entertains a couple next to us who want to know where I was from, adorably she didn’t know how to say South Africa, so she said England. I suppose that is true too.
My favourite part of the half an hour ride is a mom who has her arms wrapped around her daughter of about 12 who has fallen asleep. The mom is small and just stands there, holding the daughter, letting her sleep trying to soften the bumpiness of the ride. It reminded me of love again, though I never forget, I am still reminded.
Somehow, we got dropped near the hotel. We arrive and everyone has already started introducing themselves. 11 of the European delegates have arrived, all male. So that is 15 guys to 2 girls so far… it’s rather obvious.
After introductions of where we’re from and how jet-lagged we are, we decide to all go out for dinner together after dropping our stuff in our suddenly-there’s-a-very-expensive-room available suite.
Tim stays behind with Jed, it’s been a big day for them both. I think Adam went to sleep. The rest of us got taxi’s to somewhere, somewhere. We arrive at a huge shopping mall with huge stores of famous logos. Adidas, Apple, Uniqlo, screens everywhere, fountains… Big. Everything big.
I don’t know who was in charge, but we end up following somewhere down a few alleys until we arrive at a restaurant next to stalls of very potent street-food. Everything on skewers gets fried. Everything. There’s a stall of all of the oysters and seafood you can imagine.
We go inside, with Counting Crows blaring, somehow we’d arrived at a fully European restaurant. Amusing and typical that in the middle of Beijing, with the most exotic and incredible food at every corner, we all have burgers and chips.
The guys are ridiculous. Everyone is here because they are an entrepreneur. They are not like the social-entrepreneurs I know, they are the businessmen who are all under 35 and have already made their millions and are only at the start of it. On my right is the 26 year old who has patented the electric bike. On my left is the guy who created the online interactive education system, down the line is the guy who’s invented a mattress to safely test explosives… there is no quicker route to humility and self-reflection than having dinner with 11 of the top and most successful entrepreneurs in the whole of Europe. The guy opposite me has just finished his 6 month scholarship at MIT, Stanford and Harvard. I feel wholly unimpressive. I lose track of exactly what it is that I do and who I am and why I’m here. I quickly change the subject if people ask what I do, I get self-conscious that I haven’t made millions. I am now sitting on the tiles of the bathroom, it’s 5.10am wondering what on earth is going on, but knowing just the same.
Why are we here. Because imagine if the people who actually do stuff in the world, knew themselves, had intentions for a better world and had humanity in their hearts, imagine that. This is why we are here. I remember that just because I am in a fancy suite and have to wear a cocktail dress to meet the Polish ambassador this afternoon…we are all just humans, all with hearts, all with magic and that if I can do what I do with none of the glitz and shine, then hopefully I can do it with it as well. Oh god.
Tim has put together an extraordinary team. We have Grace, who is Grace and is setting up The Hub in Singapore, where we’ve been invited to run a programme. She started a social enterprise that brings books to Indonesia. She’s a light. Then Johannes, who is of the earth and made of goodness, who understands natural sustainability and working with the land as well as having the exquisite ability to connect hearts. Then there is Andres, who is a flag-bearer for Beautiful Business, who is deeply driven by businesses having integrity, having a positive impact, working with the world. Then there is Tim, beautiful and brilliant Tim who has a way of communicating like no-one I’ve ever met. He can translate people and ideas into words and images that are effortless to understand. He is a diffuser for all the stress of the organisational PoY team, with a centre that is so kind and so accepting that he helps people be, just by being. There is no one else that they could have asked to do his job. Then there is me. In my pyjamas with a numb bum on the bathroom floor.
I have to get up in less than 2 hours and then we have a meeting about the programme. Then the Polish embassy people. Then we start tomorrow. What we start, I don’t know. Perhaps I won’t know until I am standing in front of people. By the end of our programme we need to present information to President Burosa (spelling?) (president of the European Commission) and Premier Wen (Premier of…China). If we get it right, we can have a pretty big influence on policy.
I’m not sure what China needs. When Grace asked a cab driver what religion he was, he said The Government. The Government is a lot of people’s god. What does a country like this need? It works here, the systems work. Or do they? It’s nice to be here and not to be here all at the same time.
It’s now 6.30am on some day in October 2011. I’ve come downstairs because I don’t want to disturb Tim and Grace. I find a whole lobby full of tourists, I hear them the second I get out of the lift. They are American and English. Ah yes, the noise we make.
The city is waking up now and the The Great Haze is being set alight.