We got lucky. The rush hour crowds were ebbing away as we reached Beijing’s metro Line 1. The platform was half-empty. There was no panicked crush to pour into the carriages when the train arrived, and inside our car, we could choose where we stood.

I slid into the corner beside the linking door to the next carriage, My Man beside me leaning against the overhead bar. In the other corner was a young couple, in their private fascination oblivious to the rest of the passengers, if not the world. Holding onto the central vertical pole directly in front of the doors were two teenage female BFFs, intensely aware of every male on board and every female worth competing against. Their style and confidence labelled them as privileged; whether the other members of their families were as pampered is another matter. Between ourselves and the door was an office worker in his early thirties, short, stocky and anonymous. He was also hunched protectively over the object of his absorption; this time a smartphone.

The train pulled into the notoriously-overcrowded Guomao station smack in the middle of the city’s Central Business District. People flowed out and flowed in. As they did so, we noticed a see-through plastic beverage cup in a plastic bag on the ground where the smartphone man had been standing. Whether it was his or not, I can’t say. I never saw him holding anything. My Man said, “Oh look, someone forgot their cup.” At that precise moment, a woman who had just entered also saw the cup. Her reaction was to throw her own rubbish — the core of an apple or pear in a plastic bag — down beside the cup, nudging it with her foot until they rested side-by-side.

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Teahouse dragon

It was my first visit to a Chinese tea-house. The rumours of scams that left foreigners with a massive bill at the end of their experience had kept me out of chaguan till now, despite my deep curiosity about the places.

But then a chance to join a meditation group that met in a proper teahouse came up, so I thought it might help me get into one of the buildings without being fleeced. This teahouse was away from the central areas, the tourist hotspots. It was in a secluded courtyard off one of Beijing’s main traffic arteries to the north of the city. The stares at the laowai had an extra tinge of surprise up here. I almost didn’t see the teahouse in the courtyard, its front façade was so narrow. It was unobtrusive, not showy at all, but the simplicity of the façade gave it an elegance that still made it stand out from its more unrefined neighbours.

Because of this narrow front, I had expected a small compact space inside. But a wide staircase inside the door led to an upper floor, which opened up back into a cavernous space, with private compartments to the sides, an arched bridge over a trickling ‘stream’, and a labyrinth network of passages. There were glass display stands with various types of tea, sets of teacups, and many types of kettles and instruments for making tea. The walls were covered in a burgundy-coloured wallpaper, lightened by gold leaf Oriental designs. The furniture was heavy wood, providing generous seating and sturdy as the tree it came from. The floor was tiled in stone, with beautiful mosaics in ceramic and sections with broken crockery set beneath glass plates so clear your heart skipped a beat when you stood on them. There was classical Chinese music playing gently in the background: you only noticed it when there was no conversation.

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