Trans-Siberian Railway – 5

Onwards via blog 5 to Beijing:

Friday 17 August

We felt we had been micro-waved and well browned by the time Eva knocked on our cabin door at 4am. Was our arrival in Beijing imminent? No. We were on schedule, but it was the use of toilet facilities that was urgent, unless visitors/invaders from other carriages establish permanent occupancy (Steff having rendered our toilets enviably usable). At 5.30am or thereabouts we were tipped onto the platform, quitting our travel by rail for the last time. Independently of any reservations about pressure-cookers and so on, I think we all paused for a quiet moment or two.

A hotel representative, Jason (in Anglicized form), met us and we traipsed after him to a mercifully air-conditioned coach. The subsequent drive was a longish one and took us through Beijing’s ‘red light district’, which Jason took pains to point out. As we approached the hotel he added that we would unquestionably receive telephone calls to our rooms offering massages. We should not be deceived: these were prostitutes touting for business.

Eventually we reached the Rainbow Hotel. But our travails were not over: the rooms booked for us were not available until 1-1.30pm. We breakfasted, which proved a wonderful compensation: the highlights, bacon and bottomless coffee. Every time I drained my coffee a sweet vision in red, hovering close, refilled it. A consensus slowly and organically evolved that the group’s tour to Tiananmen Square be re-scheduled from afternoon to morning, a thoroughly sensible re-adjustment given the continuing inaccessibility of our rooms. Jason was to be our guide.

Tiananmen Square made Moscow’s Red Square look puny; but like the latter it resonates with an admix of past, present and future. It is bounded by the Great Hall of the People to its west, the Museum of Chinese History to its east, the Imperial Palace to its north, and, through and around the Qianmen Gate, the throb of everyday life and shopping to its south. It was here, although in a Square a quarter of its present expanse, that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949; and of course it was here also that the notorious democratic rallies of the summer of 1989 occurred. Watching his words, Jason told us his friend’s brother was among those killed in the army’s crushing of the students: ‘he can’t let it go’. Annette and I hovered on the edge of the ‘22’ as it meandered after Jason’s flag. As in Moscow, people were well and fashionably dressed, perhaps even more so; this had the look and feel of a prospering cosmopolitan society. Four delightful girls approached us wanting to practice their English; but reluctant to lose sight of Jason’s blue flag altogether we had to apologize and demur.

Having seen Lenin, now it was Mao’s turn. And Mao seemed in higher demand. If 1989 was the real and symbolic termination of Soviet bloc supremacy, it was a temporary blip for the increasingly flexible Communist Party of China. The queue we joined was long but fast moving and heavily and efficiently policed by means of loudspeakers. Bunches of artificial flowers were available for purchase from kiosks prior to entering the mausoleum. Edging through a front hall, where the flowers were laid none-too-reverently on trolleys, presumably for re-cycling (a nice little earner for the Party), we were met once again with harsh and unforgiving light: and there he was, another icon to the praxis of Marxism (an icon, I had read, is designed to induce the right thoughts and feelings). Outside again we did our best to take photographs, but it was hazy, humid and hot. We were shadowed by an operative wielding a hotel camcorder, doubtless with future video sales in mind.

We trekked back to the coach and were driven to the Temple of Heaven. Jason’s commentary, alternatively informative and trivial, was beginning to grate. Built in 1420, the Temple served as a place of ritual for the Ming emperors. The details of the rituals themselves Annette and I were content to skip, and I noticed that we were not the only ones to slip discretely out of earshot. The architecture was classical and, to me, more interesting than pleasing. Taken in the round, the Temple complex was an eloquent expression of imperial autocracy, and one less ‘long gone’ than one might imagine. Sheer tiredness took the edge off my engagement.

By early afternoon we were back at the hotel, by now more than ready to collapse. The room allocated to Annette and I was on the eighth floor: it was besieged by the detritus of refurbishment, the air in the corridor outside thick with dust. Eva was forthright in her advocacy: after abbreviated and ritualistic protestations we were transferred to the fourteenth floor. This was better: a living area with two comfortable chairs and a well-equipped bedroom, plus toilet and, mercifully, a shower. We showered, dozed and otherwise exorcised our fatigue for a while before taking the lift down to our subgroup to plan an evening meal.

Plans made, I departed for a walk, chancing upon Nigel en route. We opted for a quick beer: our choice of venue was good, two large beers setting us back less than 10 yuan (or a pound sterling). The subsequent evening meal was at a local restaurant researched in advance by Ken. It was utilitarian rather than exciting, although – a good sign – it was heavily used by locals. Hubert and Jean, a bit lost, made our six into eight. After the meal I went for another walk. It was a balmy evening. There were still a few market stalls and bars open, together with a clutch of hairdressing salons, the significance of which I was to discover later. On street corners gaggles of men played Chinese chess or, more often, accompanied by wild gestures and flourishes, cards. I felt safe.

Saturday 18 August

Breakfast was not rushed, although it seemed so. Maybe my capacity for crispy bacon had diminished. Jason prattled on, even serenading us for a while. He was educated, intelligent and interesting, especially, it occurred to me, when telling us about this/his China in transition, about which he knew more than he felt safe in letting on and about which he was clearly ambivalent. He saw ‘capitalist’ prospects for himself that he could not have anticipated even a few years previously; and yet he felt the passing of worthy (communist) entitlements. He also felt he owed us non-stop chatter.

The first stop of the day was at a Jade factory. I splashed out on a game of Chinese chess (which predictably I have not touched since). Our next halt was more energizing – the tomb of the thirteenth Ming emperor located 25 kilometres outside Beijing. It proved very austere: no artifacts. What struck me most was the scale and ruthlessness of the vast and clandestine building programme of which the tomb was the kernel, the whole programme costing the equivalent of two years of Land Tax for the whole of China. What egoism! And what a paradigmatic instance of institutionalized imperial charisma. When the builders and craftsmen had completed their work they were all poisoned, so nobody who knew the details or whereabouts of the tomb survived; only coded instructions remained.

Lunch was sublime, the ‘22’ seated around two large and circular tables with revolving centres from which one exquisite course followed another. On the train the Chinese menu had been superior to its Russian predecessor, but in Beijing I felt I was discovering and relishing Chinese food for the first time. London’s Soho paled into insignificance.

The Great Wall of China, at its most resplendent in the 16th century, long after its beginnings 2000 years earlier, had long occupied a special place in our imagination. The coach pulled up beside a heavily reconstructed section of the Wall, which occasioned some concern. The challenge Jason gave us was to walk to the summit of this section (‘you will be Mao’s heroes’). In the event a handful of us made it despite numerous dashed hoped: each summit seemed inevitably to herald yet another trek. Those who made it were: Edward, by far the speediest but at 16 too young to count; Sam, Chris, Annette and I; and belatedly Stu, a considerable feat for a big man. The five of us were immensely proud of ourselves. The photographs show us embarrassingly sweat-stained, ravaged and pink. A couple of us posed with Chris alongside a public notice reading: ‘no climbing in case of thunderstorm’. We had got to know Chris a little better, and discernible through his extrovert and often vulgar performances was an open, caring and amusing man. Sadly it was too cloyingly and dankly hazy for a clear view back across the undulations to other sections of the Wall. But a sense of its extent and of the massive, concerted and labour-intensive effort that must have been required for its construction was possible. This was a project we would see again when the plane flew from Beijing; and it is apparently one of the few human artifacts visible from spacecraft encircling the Earth.

We licked ice-creams while waiting for Stu. Sam, haggling for t-shirts, lost his camera. Stu’s grit, Sam’s loss and the stubbornness of Mao’s heroes delayed the coach for a while. It was early evening before we reached the Rainbow Hotel. Our sub-group of six opted for a restaurant across the road, with mixed results. Janet, Steff and Annette close the dishes but somehow contrived to order only rice. The waitress was sullen and unhelpful and there was no appeasing her. As if sensing and resenting my reading of her mood, she tipped into my soup bowl – at the third attempt – what appeared to be a chicken’s foot. I imagined it might have been a delicacy, but … Out of the corner of my eye I witnessed our waitress being sternly lectured by her supervisor. The rest of the staff were solicitous to a fault. It was a memorable meal, but not for the right reasons.

Again I went walking late, this time venturing further towards the centre of Beijing. A few locals were still trading, others stood in knots on the street corners, playing games or gossiping. The back streets were the liveliest. In parts of China hairdressing establishments provide cover for brothels. I idly wondered if one would have to be Chinese to be guaranteed a decent haircut? There were sex workers too at Hotel Rainbow of course. Unlike their Russian counterparts, however, they were discretion personified. I did not attempt any more interviews.

 

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