Culture shock. I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Oh no, not me, calm and collected citizen of the world. Hah, yeah right.
Oddly it wasn’t the squat toilets (nasty, but relatives had warned me in advance) or even the lack of English, it was a mall in Beijing.
The place is called Silk Road Market (“One Market! One Dream!”), and it’s a combination of a mall and a market. It’s a large building - six stories high along with four sub-basements - yet the shops inside are open stalls, packed into a grid, spaced little more than an armspan apart from one another. Each stall has a couple of back walls lined with shelves, a small area to stand in, and a shop assistant or two.
Every shop assistant is trying to get your attention through yelling, waving and occasionally grabbing you by the arm. The crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder, and even if you could see where you’re going, there are precious few landmarks in the featureless expanse of stalls.
I’m the kind of guy that gets uncomfortable if a kiwi shop assistant asks “Can I help you?” twice. So for me, getting lost inside that place was kind of like a perfect storm of awful.
As soon as I could get back to the exit, I retreated to a neighbouring sandwich shop, where the crowds had thinned out to merely busy. I got my head back together while I watched the world’s slowest sandwich get made. (Unfamiliar with the strange foreign process of making a sandwich, the guy had to stop and ask his supervisor about several aspects)
Later in the trip we went to visit Buddha Water Cave, which was fantastic. At one point we had to wriggle our way through a very narrow, windy tunnel, headfirst and on our bellies. I found the cave crawl far less claustrophobic than Silk Road Market. At least wedged in a limestone crevice I could hear myself think.