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Baby it's cold outside

Desperately seeking Madonna in Beijing

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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IT’S A DIFFERENT WELCOME IN EVERY CITY. I stepped off the plane with a broad smile – and staggered. The slap in the face stopped me dead in my tracks. Beijing. Would I be arrested? Had I done something wrong? Was my passport picture really that ugly? I looked at the security man in shock. And then again, the cold hit me like an ice wall, a minus-10C reminder that in the frozen north you never dawdle outside.

Caught in the maws of the worst blizzards in a century, China, sans trains and power, had ground to a halt with over 100 million Chinese trying to get home for the Lunar New Year. I had overlooked this minor detail, wholly distracted by another event with far wider implications. Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were speaking themselves hoarse over “change”. However, this was small beer. Hong Kong television sets were tuned into something far more relevant for people who value freedom and liberty.

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Some rather frank pictures of the pop duo Twins and a male actor were circulating online. These demonstrated conclusively that celebrities often get so passionate about their work they simply don’t realise the show is over and that’s not a microphone in their hands. It also drove home the point that faulty computers with your avant-garde home movies should never be left at a repair shop. Nerds have needs too. Alarm bells went off. I immediately called all my friends to enquire if they had seen any sordid pictures of me online. Most told me they would not look at my pictures online or anywhere else even if offered a large sum of money. I was reassured.

The advantage of taxis is that they rarely move, making it easier to hold the camera steady for those holiday snaps...

As the biting tundra winds swept across the tarmac, frozen passengers clumped down the rickety stairs and waited for a bus. At length, one arrived. We streamed in and huddled close to one another. The doors remained open while an elderly man hobbled slowly towards us. A wheelchair was presented. But its wheels jammed. The stewardesses pushed despairingly. The old gent chewed his gums. The wind continued to blow and I tried to frame my final thoughts before terminal frostbite set in.

Cold is not necessarily a traveller’s first or most enduring impression of Beijing in winter. There are other wonders. Like the traffic. Of course you can always tour Beijing on foot. But that might be too fast. The advantage of taxis is they rarely move, making it easier to hold the camera steady for holiday snaps. The Chinese capital has developed dramatically over the past decade with broad highways and an endless succession of Ring Roads, all ensuring that no matter where you are, time – and your taxi – will stand still.

Yet, while snow poured down on southern China, Beijing remained brilliantly sunny with laundered blue skies. There was no sign of that trademark pollution. If not for the cold this could have been an excellent venue for the next Twins home movie. On this January Friday though, I was sitting in the Mother of Traffic Jams. Madonna could have fallen in love, got married, had kids, divorced and entered rehab in the two hours it took for me to get from the Kerry Centre, downtown, to my hotel in the far west.

Words like "hotel" or "airport" appear to have no significance though drivers will beam from ear to ear ...

There is another problem to contend with in Beijing. English. Not the English. They’re a rather civilised bunch and have even adopted tandoori chicken as their national dish. The English language. Speak it anywhere in Beijing and you will be met by a resolutely blank gaze. This has nothing to do with people trying to be clichéd and inscrutable. Words like “hotel” or “airport” appear to have no significance though cab drivers will grin from ear to ear. Beijing is developing so fast, often your doorman is unaware of the latest hotel or restaurant that has sprouted up overnight. Try and get things written down. In Chinese. And ask everybody if they’ve seen shocking pictures of you on the Internet.

Beijingers are a friendly bunch. Two young ladies accosted me and, declaring they were students, invited me to a teahouse to practise English. “You look American,” they said. “I’m Indian,” I responded, “but I’ll be happy to chat if you’d like to stroll the block with me as I shoot pictures.” They looked at the frostbitten trees, then at me, then at the warm café, and soon peeled away.

My taxi finally edged out of the Friday night jam and my hotel hove into view. I wanted to hug my driver and marry him. Alas my inn was on the wrong side of an eight lane highway. The cab nudged forward to find a u-turn many kilometres away. I smiled, certain in the knowledge there was still time to compute my tax returns, or look for Madonna.

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