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Chinese Whispers & Dumb Charade

We meet many people on the road, both locals and travelers alike who help us in time of need or distress without expecting a return. Last week of every month I bring you stories from travelers who have experienced kindness on the road and like to share and spread it for the love of travel.

This month’s story has come from Ajay Sood who takes us to China. It is a kindness story with a twist. 😉 I am sure, Ajay would make you smile or should I say laugh? 😀
Over to Ajay Sood.
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While this is a tale of some quirks of fate that took me to Beijing, it is also a story-with-a-funny-twist about genuine help extended by strangers who did not know my language, and about what that ‘help’ landed me into. Come, join me in my journey!

Vault of Heaven option

Vault of Heaven

How destiny took me to Beijing

It was early summer, 2008. My New Zealand trip had fallen through as the unscrupulous travel agent who had connected me to the NZ DMO (New Zealand Destination Marketing Organisation) and had organised my fam, wanted me to influence my wife for her company’s MICE business at screwy terms.

I had already applied for and got my leave sanctioned.

Around then, Beijing was in advanced stages of readiness for the Summer Olympics. Globally, their PR machinery was actively telling the whole world how hospitable and prepared they were.

Together, these circumstances conspired and got me to plan an otherwise unscheduled trip to that city. For me, China, and more specifically Beijing, had always held a mysterious allure!

Beijing and Travelure, the Tourist

I was going to be in Beijing for over a week. Knowing how much the city offered, I chalked out elaborate plans by going through blogs, travel sites, querying knowledgeable people on web forums, and more.

My itinerary included both, the usual and the not-so-usual places of interest – the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Zoo, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Confucius, Fragrant Hills Park, Beijing Chaoyang Acrobatics Theatre, Great Wall (Mutianyu), Beihai Park, Bell and Drum Tower…

Additionally, I had blocked off a complete half day from sunrise to mid-afternoon for a visit to the Temple of Heaven.

The Temple of Heaven and the centre of the earth

Temple of Heaven

For those who may not know, let me share my reason for earmarking so much time for my visit to this temple. It certainly had nothing to do with the old Chinese belief that the temple was the centre of the earth.

Situated in the heart of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is approximately four times the size of the Royal Palace (the Forbidden City). It occupies a whopping 2,700,000 sq mt area that is a shade smaller than the 3,410,000 sq mt Central Park in New York. The Chinese ruling dynasties had ensured that the abode of God was much larger than their own humble quarters!

My research had also thrown up that the local Beijing folks used the temple grounds for their morning walks and workouts. Interestingly, these workouts were different from the usual yoga and jogging we may be used to. The diverse workouts included, but were not limited to, the niche martial arts practiced only in South East Asia. Here, Kendo, Tai Chi, Karate, Kick Boxing, Jiujitsu were practiced alongside the more sedate, traditional and graceful fan dance and ballroom dances.

Also, this early fifteenth century UNESCO inscribed temple complex has some architecturally superb structures like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the circular mound altar and the Vault of Heaven (Treasury of Heaven).

I primarily wanted to photograph all this action as well as the capture these medieval heritage monuments. So, common sense dictated that I provide myself ample time there.

My day at the Temple

I was excited.
Just before sunrise, I rode a taxi to the Temple Complex’ North Gate. While scores of local folks were walking in freely, I had to wait for the ticket booth guy to give me the ticket and my change.

Tandem workout
A walk with workouts

Once inside, I decided to keep the photography of the heritage structures for later when the light would be better, and instead chose to shoot the morning workouts action first. Like a little child, moving from one green quadrangle to another, I was gleefully capturing the strange, yet precise, routines I was witnessing. The groups of workout-ers represented all age groups. Time flew. Sometime later, a casual glance at my watch told me I had already been there for over 3 hours. It was time for me to move on and shoot the structures!

It was then that I realised the expanse of the complex.

Those days, I used to be naïve and was carrying a ton-load of camera gear. As I made my way from one structure to another, I felt my steps getting heavier. Regardless, I charged on gamely; or at least, till I had this shooting pain making its way up my left leg!

Painful Charade

Those kind ball room

Diligence had me complete my planned shoot. By which time, the pain had increased exponentially. I dragged myself towards the nearest exit from the complex – the East Gate. Once there, I stumbled upon this group of ball room dancers and asked them if they could guide me to a pharmacy.

Realising they did not know English (or Hindi, or Punjabi, for that matter), I switched to sign language. I was single-handedly playing dumb charades with the group, which by then had given up their dancing and had gathered around me.

I gestured by contorting my face, pointing towards my aching leg and making hand signs indicating that I needed a pain-relieving spray. Noticing their blank faces, I repeated this act several times. Voila! Suddenly, one of them seemed to understand what I was seeking!

Animatedly, that 50-something Chinese gentleman started giving me directions – hand signs, and a lot of Chinese words. While I was focussing on his direction-providing charade, I noticed some mirth amongst his other group members. Since my pain was acute, I ignored the reactions of his fellow group members and gave all my attention to those complex directions, which broadly asked me to go straight ahead, hit the main road, not take the first left, but turn into the second street on the left, walk about 100-150 mts, go up a four-storey mall to find my destination.

Profusely thanking the entire group and bowing multiple times (I fathomed that was the ritual of thanks to follow in China), I limped away.

Four Floors Up

I followed those directions precisely and found myself facing a dilapidated graying building. The electrical wires hung precariously all around its façade. The signboards in Chinese communicated little to me. In that maze of signage, I tried looking for a green cross – the usual indicator of a pharmacy – but failed miserably.

My excruciating pain settled it all. My only choice was to enter the building, look for an elevator and make my way to the fourth floor. But, as they say, trouble always strikes in ‘threes’. There was no elevator! Language issues, a limp and a lack of elevator were all I needed!

I slowly and painfully climbed to the fourth floor and my worst fears came true. I was not in a pharmacy, but was in the ‘stockings’ section of a rather run-down apparel store. That’s when I figured that acting is definitely not a career option for me. All that those helpful folks could make of my elaborate sign language was that I was looking for ‘stockings’.

Despite my pain, I just couldn’t help smiling! Cheers to the kind people on the road!

PS: Yes. I did find a pharmacy nearby. Yes. Only women manned it. Yes. I asked them to get out, bolted the doors of the pharmacy, took off my jeans and used the spray. Yes, it did relieve the pain!

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Ajay Sood (Travelure)
Winner of OSM (Outlook Social Media) Shutterbug of the Year 2016, Ajay shares his travel stories on Besides regularly writing for numerous travel and photography magazines, he is an international speaker on travel and architectural photography. On a mission to make destinations desirable, he has already travelled to over 35 countries.

His social media handles are:

Twitter: @TravelureAjay
Instagram: @Travelure
G+: +TravelureInPix
Pinterest: @travelure

You may also want to read some of the earlier posts on the same theme.
Kindness on the Road
Surviving America
Good deed not dead!
Lost and found

If you have been helped by someone during your travels and want to share your story with the world, feel free to connect with me in comments section.

If you want to travel places with us, I suggest you to join us on my Facebook travel page.
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32 thoughts on “Chinese Whispers & Dumb Charade”

  1. Bwahahaha great story! Playing charades can actually work wonders but yes…sometimes you might end up in the stocking store. Glad you finally got to your soothing destination nonetheless 😉

  2. This story made me smile so much, even more so because I had the pleasure of meeting Ajay at TBEX, so could imagine his voice telling the tale, and also because I’ve been to this temple, and found it one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Glad you got your spray, Ajay. Maybe it would have been good luck to pick up the stockings, too! Hehe.

    1. Rakesh, travel gives you many such stories… and memories… they seldom fail to bring a smile!
      Glad you laughed… today, laughter is at a premium! 😀
      My thoughts at that time – well, I was amused, and yet NOT amused! Haha!

  3. Ouch, what a day. I’m glad you had a happy ending, but that must have been painful. We’ve had some charade fun around the world. You never quite realise the problem of a language barrier until you’re faced with a situation like this.

  4. Sometimes the most frustrating instances give us the best stories and the best laughter! The kindness of strangers is everywhere and at least you had an adventure (albeit painful) to talk about and you could have bought some fine stockings while there. Great pictures and wonderful story!

  5. I have never heard of a pain spray before! I don’t think we have anything like that here. So glad you finally found the help you needed. Maybe the old man thought you needed pressure stockings! Oh! And I totally get why you would schedule so much time for taking photos. Sounds like you’re just as obsessed as I am, when I have a camera with me!

    1. Tami, these pain-relieving sprays are very common in Asia. I have also seen sportsmen using these all around. Pressure stockings? Haven’t heard of those, though! And yes, I truly am obsessed when I have my camera in my hand! 🙂

  6. I know Ajay and I can just see him doing this hand gesturing routine to the group of people and ending up in the stocking store. So funny. Sometimes it pays to get out of your comfort zone and speak to the locals, if even just for the funny story!

    1. Laura, as travellers, that’s what we do best – collect interesting travel stories! And, a pre-condition to that is – speaking to the locals! Since you know me, I can understand you saying you could see me do those hand gestures! 😀

  7. This is a great story! I was definitely giggling. I also completely sympathize–charades are HARD! Also, after reading this I realized I need to approach photography a little bit differently… it never occurred to me to plan my day around when the lighting would be best! I’m such an amateur!

    1. Glad to be the court-jester, Janine 😀
      Yes, charades can be trying! I am glad this story gave you some insight into planning your photography!
      Happy clicking (and planning)!

  8. I love this story! Not just for the demonstration that language barriers are all too real when traveling. But also for how you used it to show the life of those who frequent such an incredible monument. I hope your leg got to feeling better!

    1. Thank you, Bikram! This incident definitely brings forth the language barrier, and at the same time the kindness a traveller gets to feel no matter where he/she goes!

  9. Heheh! This cracked me up! With all the quirks that travel brings different languages is one hilarious quirk! It leads to great friendships and stories to tell! 🙂

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