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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

My first experience in Beijing

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By Talibeh Hydara

The last time I travelled, it was to Lagos, Nigeria. I said Lagos because I don’t consider Dakar ‘travel’. It’s just at the corner. It was a wonderful experience. It was only the second time I got on the plane; my first being in 2016 when I nervously hopped on Royal Air Maroc to Turkey. That was amasing. I visited almost every important place in Istanbul and Ankara, in the aftermath of the 2015 Fethullah Gülen aborted coup. The tragedy of the coup attempt was still fresh in memories and scars were heroically displayed. It was very touching. I saw pride in Turkish citizens who risked their lives to stop the coup; standing in front of armed men, lying on the path of a tanker and chasing out the Güllenist soldiers.

I visited the national assembly building, which was bombarded, and the Bosphorus bridge, a symbolic edifice which connects Europe and Asia. I ate more time and more different foods in those 11 days than I did in the previous six months. I became a monstrous glutton. I ate manti, Kebab, köfte and others I cannot remember. I was certain nothing could beat my Turkey travel. 

Nigeria tried. Good weather. Spicy foods. It was a nice experience. But, if you travel Africa much, you would not fail to notice the familiarity of the environments. Gambia is just a small Nigeria, sort of. Lots of Nigerians to start with. Nigerian music. Nigerian movies. Nigerian dress. In fact, lots of Gambians have now taken to Nigerian accent. You cannot really distinguish who is who. So, there is nothing sparkling about my visit to Lagos even though I stayed at the Radisson hotel. Gambia is also building Radisson. You see? No difference.

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And then China came. I have always loved China. When I was nominated to attend a monthlong exchange programme in 2019, I was excited. But it coincided with my short stint at the foreign ministry and someone had to take my place. I was crushed. The only consolation was a promise that I would have more opportunity to travel around the world at the foreign ministry. Guess what, in my 11-month time at the foreign ministry, I didn’t even go to the Casamance border. It looks good on my CV though and I had the opportunity to meet high-profile guests of the Gambia government, including Wang Yi, State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China.

Fast-forward to 2023, I was again nominated by Standard Newspaper to attend a 4-month media exchange programme in China. This time, I made sure no one took my place. After my nomination was confirmed, Zhang Xinlei, Zhou Ningyu and, of course, Ambassador Liu Jin, made sure we had a smooth visa process in Dakar. My colleague, Momodou Lamin Choi and I rushed to Dakar like our lives depended on it. We spent the night in Pikine and took a cab to Fann Residence to the Chinese embassy. That was a good experience. We strolled in the streets and ate bread-mayonnaise-omelette. We walked to the Cheikh Anta Diop University and took the Bus 24 back to Pikine after getting our visa. But I wish I had walked on foot. That Bus 24 is slower than a snail and it is never full. It was a frustrating journey to a neighbouring country.

Back to The Gambia, everyone was excited for me. I am going to a country I like. It was a quick journey. I never got on SN Brussels before. It was my first. I watched different movies on the plane to Brussels. It took 5hrs to get there. It was freezing, something like -2. Thank God we didn’t leave the airport. I would have been packaged back to The Gambia in ice form. We had to spend at least four hours at Brussels for our connecting flight to Beijing. It was exhausting. By the time a Hainan Airlines flight arrived, we were already tired and hungry. But like Choi confidently stated, it was the best service we had all day on the plane. The food was really delicious. The 9-hour flight to Beijing seemed faster than the 5-hour flight to Brussels. Plus, I also watched Wolf Warrior. It’s a movie about a Chinese marksman who took on foreign mercenaries almost singlehandedly. Foreign here means American. Growing up, I watched lots of American movies in which one or two American soldiers would invade and defeat a whole Chinese barracks. This is quite the opposite in this movie. This time, it is a Chinese soldier who defeated a whole team of American mercenaries. It was intriguing. It was balanced for me.  

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We departed Banjul at 8pm Monday. We arrived in Beijing at 5am Wednesday. I never had that kind of journey; foot, vehicle or plane. But Beijing is different. The chilly weather. The skyscrapers. The epic bridges. The lights. The people. Different gravy. We were taken straight to the Diplomatic Residence Compound in Chaoyang District where we’re expected to be based through out the course of the programme. That evening, Choi and I went out looking for a supermarket to buy food stuff. Everything in China is technology. So, I used Google Map. It took us straight to the nearby Jenny Wang supermarket but we found it closed. Then we got excited and decided to look for another store. We walked and marvelled at Beijing’s epic architectural masterpieces until my phone ran out of battery. It went off. And, for a moment, despite the bright lights, giant buildings and over 21 million people, my world went dark. No food and no way back to the residence. We then decided to be creative about our predicament. We approached almost everyone we met in the streets and asked for directions. Half of the people don’t speak English, and we don’t speak Chinese. We walked and roamed. No google. Not even a phone call. Just two desperate strangers wandering in the streets of the busiest city in the world.    

For nearly two hours, we admired the city and worried about our situation at the same time. But just when we thought we might actually sleep in the streets, we met someone whose English was good. We described our situation to him. He took his phone and searched the location. His instructions were simple: count seven blocks on the left and turn. It sounded so easy. But because we were hungry, we cared more about finding food than counting the blocks. We completely focused on the shops on the right and forgot to count the blocks on the left. We couldn’t find anywhere to buy food and then realised we have not been counting as well. We met a gentleman in the streets who figured out how tired we looked. We told him where we wanted to go and he asked us to wait. He searched the location and told us it is 3km behind us. In essence, while desperate to get something to eat, we walked past our residence without noticing. The thought of struggling back 3km immediately upset my stomach. But this guy was an angel. He told us to wait for him, hired a taxi using an app, paid and directed the driver to take us back to the residence. Bingo! Chinese Man of the Year! Exceptional human being and he saved our butts from sleeping in the streets. I could not get his name but despite the general belief that all Chinese people look alike, I will never forget that face. It was the first thing I wanted to write about in Beijing but because I left my laptop on in my room, thinking I would be back soon, I found it off when the battery ran down. And after charging, it refused to turn on. I had to spend another day getting lost in the streets trying to find an apple service centre. My laptop will not turn on. Choi’s laptop got perfumed by his perfume. Chea, our lovely friend from Cambodia, also wanted to fix his device. Together, we gallivanted the streets again. Even though we could not find any place to service our devices that day, we found our way back to the residence without any help. That was quite fulfilling. We even went into a mall, Yu Town Mall. Amazing place. My laptop has now been fixed and that is why I am writing about our Chinese saviour! I have since biked through Jishuitan in Xicheng, Dongzhimen in Doncheng district and Janguomen in Chaoyang district.

Yesterday, I was in the Great Hall of the People for the opening ceremony of the National People’s Congress. It’s a monumental building that epitomises Chinese democracy. The organisation and coordination I saw was indescribable. Thousands of people of all colors, race and ethnicities marched into that Hall. It was a sombre demonstration of diversity which I have never seen anywhere in the world.

In the same area hosts Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Monument of the people’s heroes and the National Museum of China. I look forward to visiting these places; meeting new people and going to more provinces. Maybe not getting lost this time. Until then, 再见

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