Beijing in the Dark
Turning thirty the previous summer, my striving for dirtbag (cheap and unclean) world travel became acute. It was 1984. So it seemed appropriate to pursue an experience in a totalitarian state. I wasn’t looking to challenge Big Brother, acting as a superhero of individual freedoms. In fact it was a series of innocuous events that led me in this direction.
Initially, during the spring of that year, a climbing partner invited me to join a three to four person group on a trip to Nepal. The itinerary included a month long, extremely challenging technical glacier trek in the Khumbu (Everest) region. I leaped at this opportunity and signed on for the September expedition.
About three months before departure, I was in New York visiting the folks, loitering around some fine artwork in the free museums, and taking in some stage and screen shows. One afternoon perusing through a bookstore with my Dad, I noticed a small book in the travel section: China Off the Beaten Track by Brian Schwartz. It is about a trip he took in 1983, the first year that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) had opened its doors to independent travelers. So, in the first minutes of skimming, I learned that visas were available in Hong Kong, as were air travel tickets from there to Beijing.
I was unaware that independents, sans guide, could find their way, legally, into this mysterious and feared country. According to this book, yes, even a solo dirtbagger like me might saunter there without risking arrest. It seemed so simple! I was already going to be in Asia for the big mountain trip. Why not hop to Red China, ride some trains, eat some authentic foods, and witness what communist repression looked like.
Of course, as a boy, I was acculturated with the solid principle that the Reds, both in the Soviet Union and the PRC were our mortal enemies. I had learned through many sources that these Pinkos posed the greatest threats to our fantastic experiment of promoting a large cultural melting pot in the affluent middle class. Functional democracy, individual liberty, apple pie, and competitive baseball simply could not continue to exist in a world that included the commie devils, or so I was told.
As I was dreaming through the guidebook, my Dad said, “I’ll buy you that book if you think you’ll use it”. By the end of that day, I began planning a five week excursion in order to promote Sino-American relations. I enjoyed their cooking, so they would probably embrace me as a fellow lover of salty tastes.
A few months later, after the radical mountaineering adventure in the Himalaya, I landed in Hong Kong. At that time, the city was still being leased by the British from the Chinese government. Much of it appeared as a typical, modern, western like, business focused, bustling metropolis, at least in the Central District. Albeit, there was a far, far larger Chinatown area than what I had seen in New York or San Francisco. This is where I stayed, on the thirteenth floor of the Chungking Mansion, an old high rise office building. Here, in a small dorm, high above the noisy streets of Kowloon, an organized plan developed. Within this stunningly set, mountainous port city, I pursued the necessary documents for transit. At the China Travel Service center the stolid, officious employees aided me in procuring a visa and a plane ticket.
Forty eight hours later, I boarded a small China Air jet on a three hour night flight to Beijing. Arriving around 3:00 AM, at first glance, all seemed familiar. The airport appeared as new. It was fresh, modern, and clean. I swiftly passed through the customs and immigration check points. When proceeding to the ground transportation area, a woman with a British accent asked me if I had arranged to be picked up and driven to the city. I told her that I was going to take the bus, which I had assumed existed. She said that there are no buses or taxis at night and that her driver would drop me off wherever I wanted to go. Snap! Good luck for me as it was ninety minutes in the car and even though I had an address for a foreigner’s hotel, finding it would have been a daunting challenge.
The woman was employed at the British Consulate. We chatted some about the city and my lack of plans for the coming weeks. When she dropped me off, she bid me farewell with a countenance awry and an uncomfortable demeanor. In retrospect, I’m certain that she wondered, and had a transient worry, about how I would get along on my own. She knew Beijing and must have felt some concern as a mother would. Still, I felt emboldened by this bit of fortune and anticipated the dawn with wondrous excitement.
As I was left, I noticed that it was extraordinarily dark in the city. There were very few street lights and little illumination in buildings. I smelled soy sauce in the air and absorbed the quiet. There were virtually no cars about, but this might be expected at the predawn hour. A cool and humid breeze fluttered around, delicately swirling me into an aura of serenity.
Up the stone stairs and inside the small lobby of the tiny hotel, I waited for about thirty minutes before a clerk arrived. He then completely ignored my request to check in for accommodation. Another hour passed, as the sun rose. Still, there was no acknowledgement of my presence by the man behind the counter. I had read, that at these so called Friendship hotels (set up for only foreigners), that the service was great. So, what was up? Another hour passed, when I heard some English resonating from upstairs.
Three young Canadian guys came jogging down the steps. When they saw me, they asked if I had been ignored. “Yes, for a few hours now”. They laughed, “this is normal here, the same thing happened to us”. They assured me that I would be shown to a very comfortable room, later in the day. I was invited to join them as they walked to the Forbidden City, aka the Imperial Palace, which housed the Chinese emperors for most of the last five hundred years. Of course, I accepted the invitation even though I had been awake all night.
Along the two mile walk, the boys informed me of some nuts and bolts travel tips. They had been in the country for two weeks and would leave the following day. Most importantly, they explained how to get on for about five dollars a day by utilizing a black market, money exchange system. Non-Chinese visitors had access to special currency, Foreign Exchange Certificates, and could use this money at the rare Friendship stores to buy electronics equipment and/or European foods. Since I had no desire for these things, the instruction was to exchange dollars directly for the People’s money, Renminbi . This had to be done quietly on the streets, with roving Chinese money handlers. In making these transactions, you could triple or quadruple the value of your purchasing power for every dollar spent. This was a well appreciated pointer for penny pinchers like me.
We raced towards Tiananmen Square. While absorbing the lesson, I discovered where I was. The scant occurrence of autos the night before was hardly increased during regular business hours. However, hundreds of thousands of people on their machines were flowing in a current on the wide boulevards. Never before, nor since, have I seen a throng like this speeding in orderly fashion on their bicycles; the most voluminous and basic, one gear rapid transit system ever devised, loomed before us.
The riders’ clothing was modeled and prescribed by the late Mao Zedong himself. The so called Mao suit was developed by the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen in the 1920s but became the official dress for all men after the successful 1949 Maoist revolution. The tunic like jacket had four pockets on it symbolizing the Four Virtues derived from ancient Chinese philosophy: propriety, justice, honesty, and shame. The five buttons were always secured to the neck and the short collar was turned down. The pants were baggy with a stovepipe cut. Almost all the men I saw on this trip wore the garb in either navy, gray, or army green. Many of the women sported the outfit as well. This neatly dressed, massive display of synchronicity was inspiring and perplexing.
Had the brainwashing and fear mongering from the Cultural Revolution a decade earlier succeeded? Were these masses convinced that personal expression in attire was evil? I knew that the standard of living for most in the city, even by 1984, had been raised. It was better for many than ever before under this communist regime. Regardless of these questions, the aesthetic effect of this teeming multitude was profound. There was a long and wide and deep beauty in it, although I sensed a wicked iniquity.
Soon we arrived at the Square in front of the humongous four hundred year old gate, through which lay the Forbidden City. The Square itself has been the sight of numerous important political incidents in recent decades. Most notable, was the protest of 1989 in which close to half a million, mostly students, called for economic liberalization and an increase in personal freedoms. Of course, the West was in great favor of the students. The tensions between the young demonstrators and the government grew, as did the focus of the world. Over the course of two months, cameras and reporters were methodically cleared from the site. On or around June 4th the army began using live ammunition to end the gathering. There are no photos and no documents to be found concerning the outcome, even today. Estimates of those killed range from hundreds to thousands. The numbers of imprisoned were certainly far greater.
We passed underneath the eighteen by thirteen foot oil portrait of Mao, hanging above the front of the gateway. A cult of personality was still embraced by the hundreds of millions of followers. Skeptics would remain silent, dreading the threat of death, which was horrifically verified through many episodes of governmental destruction during the seventies and eighties. Slowly, we penetrated the dimly lit tunnel like entrance. Again, I was in the dark in Beijing, walking under the edifice. I touched the wall of the burrowed passage with my palm and it was cool. Imagination took me to the glorious and opulent centuries of the emperors on the inside. Turning back to the outside, a vision of the suffering, squalid masses appeared. Reeling from a lack of sleep, the sobering thought of heinous inequality straightened my posture and loaded me with vigor for the long trek through the Imperial Palaces.
Again, the procession of thousands choked the streets in this city within a city. Over a dozen colorfully ornamented palaces and religious shrines emerged, when we turned corners and moved through several more gates. Like library lions, bronze and marble dragons alerted us to the many climbs and descents of stairways. After about an hour, the Canadians left me, since they had been there the day before. Alone amongst millions, I sat on a cool limestone step and considered the alien scene. The world was big enough for this divergence. No one noticed me. Xenophobia was pervasive. I soaked in the warm sun and then kept walking for hours. Then, hunger drove me to a restaurant.
Following a recommendation from the guidebook, I chose a place that specialized in Chinese meat selections. Stumbling another few miles, I arrived. There was no sign on the building, but I could smell the acrid odor of burned cooking oil. I approached the doorway twice, before entering the dusky, murky interior. There were no windows and all the tables were vacant. A few minutes later, with no menu browsing, nor ordering, a waiter delivered a small brass pot of hot cooking oil. A jellied, canned heat flamed underneath. This helped to brighten the dark space.
Next came the platter of raw diced meats and a turnable tray of five dipping sauces. I cooked a piece of something with a long brass fork in the splattering oil. I slathered it in some sweet and spicy goo, took it with my teeth, rolled it around my tongue and began to chew. I wondered if it was dog, cat, or shark. It was not chicken, beef, or pork. Bitterness, sweetness, sourness, saltiness, even foulness was sensed in my mouth. I’ll never know what animals the four chosen varieties of that day came from, but I’ll probably never find those tastes again. The belly was full and the waiter removed the pot and burner. Again the low light pervaded. It was a fine gastronomical adventure digested with ease.
That night, I met another American at the hotel and the following day we joined in a day trip to the village of Badaling, north of the city. Here, there was a well restored section of the Great Wall. Thousands of the uniformly dressed Chinese tourists had already arrived when we stepped off our bus. The rebuilt section climbed a hill, up and to the right. This piece was clogged with the native visitors. Yet, to the left, down and up hills and stretching to the horizon, was an original portion of the mystifying, 3700 mile long structure. We cared little about the new bricks and the solid steps of the renewed rampart.
Instead, a left turn took us into the darkness of history surrounding this unique and almost incomprehensible construction project. As early as the third century BCE, the first emperor Qin, ordered the building of a fortified wall along the northern frontier. The constant threat of mounted hordes invading from the north, compelled the leader to develop a defensive strategy. It was not effective. Over a millennia later, this menace continued to drive fear throughout the Chinese Empire. Finally, in the fifteenth century, during the Ming period, this long held idea of an impenetrable and unimaginably long edifice came to fruition. Close to 25,000 watchtowers were built along its length and the fortification became relatively effective in protecting the cities to the south.
The two of us were speechless as we hiked the broken stones and crumpled staircases to the west. In an hour, we stopped. There was no one to be seen, behind nor ahead, along this line. It was warm with clear skies, no wind and very quiet. Then, I heard a watchman scream from a distant tower. The rapid slapping of hooves on earth began to echo around us. A large group of heavily armed horseman approached at galloping speed. Shaking with mortal hysteria, I awoke from the dreadful daydream. We sat on the old rocks, ate a sandwich, guzzled some water, and relished our present peace.
That night, back in the city, I trekked alone to the famous Peking Duck Restaurant. Here, for over a hundred years, the traditional feast has been provided to hundreds of millions or maybe billions. Unlike at McDonald’s, I did not find any information on how many portions have been served. Nonetheless, this is the quintessential meal found in this capitol city. For a solo diner, the common practice then was to cue up behind a seat at a large round table, holding about fifteen settings. There were short lines in back of every seated customer at the dozens of tables in this very large dining hall.
As I waited for about an hour, I noticed some strange etiquette from the local gourmands. One man hacked a cough and produced some phlegm which he then spat on the white tile floor. I purposely do not recall the color of it. Commonly, the eaters would smoke a butt after the feed, before giving their seat to the next in line. Some were dragging on cigarettes in between bites. Tearing off the delicious crispy, fatty skin of the bird and devouring it by hand was normal. Picking up the large bowl of duck soup and pouring it down the throat was standard practice. There was no gratuity nor compliments paid to the waiters. When it was my turn, I followed suit, but for the smoke between bites. Both the luscious sustenance and the followed customs filled me with a high quality nutrition for my mind, body, and soul.
A day or so later, I left Beijing on a four week rail journey through the interior. My train left at about 5:00 AM. I hiked the streets, shouldering the big pack towards the station. Through the lightless alleys, I emerged in a park with trees. At first a silhouette appeared, but it was more than one. I slackened my pace and then, still obscured in the low light, I peered at a group of more than one hundred dancing Mao suits. Again, it was synchronized. An early day exercise of T’ai Chi was being practiced by these performers. The commoners were gaining internal strength from a slow motion, five hundred year old martial arts training regimen.
I pondered the questions of Marx versus Smith, communism versus free market democracy, cooperation versus competition. There was no arrival at answers.
Nonetheless, in the shadows of this far flung, exotic time and place, I connected with a different brand of humanity. Though they did not validate my presence, I wanted to don the suit and gradually contort within the gathering. I yearned to join. Not even an inkling of mentation occurred to me, that this opportunity would pass forever. Soon, Beijing would become bright and beetling. Still, in some dreams, I am a part of them, moving at less than quarter speed, in coordinated full body gyrations, in 1984, in Beijing, in the dark.