Trans-Siberian Railway – 6

The final blog: from Beijing back to Epsom:

Sunday 19 August

We opted out of the group’s morning tour to the Summer Palace in favour of a wander under our own steam and an excursion to the Forbidden City. We kept to our plan, sort of. We found our way, circuitously, to Tiananmen Square, pausing often, either to check out a local hutong or to inspect the shops and stalls. Beijing is s Mongol city, although the Mongol conquest of China initiated by Genghis Khan was only completed in the era of his grandson, Kublai Khan. The Mongols dug deep wells and horse-troughs (in Mongolian hut or hot). To safeguard their homes and ensure privacy, the indigenous peoples erected walls around the small spaces between their dwellings, reconstituting them as courtyards. It was this close tangle of hutongs that we did our best to inspect, although the ‘ghost walls’ constructed to face their entrances almost invariably frustrated us. Fortunately we could see down into some from the vantage point of our hotel living area. There was a whiff of community despite the poverty. Jason had been reared in just such an environment. The contrast between Beijing’s US-style ‘downtown’ and these ‘hovels’ was immense. But such contrasts are of course no less marked in American cities: I thought of Atlanta’s affluent downtown compared with its wooden shacks housing the poorer blacks (and ‘white trash’) to its south. The shops were the more intriguing for being open to us. We skipped in and out, frequently carrying purchases of clothes, shoes, mostly gifts; that is, until the spattering of rain gave way to a sustained shower.

Respite came in the form of a cosmopolitan café (check out my ‘café society’ webpage), ‘Coffee Language’, I assumed part of a chain. It was an oasis, if not exactly in a desert. Comfortably seated on rocking settees we sipped pots of Columbian coffee and refulled. Out of the window was Tiananmen Square itself, this time shrouded in misty rain; its perimeter was patrolled by hundreds of cyclists pedalling about their daily business. It was one of those moments to experience ‘live’, not in retrospect.

Replete, we dragged ourselves out into now-torrential rain. Annette wrapped herself up in her cagoule and scampered off in search of two umbrellas, leaving me cowering under shop awnings. They cost her 10 yens each, that is, about £1. Partially protected, we made our way to the foreign bookshop, a concession to my yearning for a fix. We were quickly wetter than was reasonable and turned back to the safe, dry security of the shops, and thence to the hotel. The Forbidden City would have to wait.

The evening’s entertainment was pre-booked: a coach trip to a show by Chinese acrobats for $20 per head. It was fantastic, if worrying: the feats accomplished by pathologically pliant young girls was astonishing, a mix of high tumbling, extraordinary balance and contortion. Sitting next to Eva, I quizzed her about her past, uncovering a degree in history and economics, more than a hint of loneliness, and growing disillusionment with a freelance career without security. I also ate and distributed her sweets. It was not a long performance so there was time for another exploratory walk when we were deposited back at the hotel.

Ken had spotted a bar down an unlit alleyway adjacent to the hotel. This led to an eventful evening. He walked ahead, five of us trailing in his wake. When he beckoned us in I assumed he, and for that matter the other four, all of whom were ahead of me, had realized it was a brothel masquerading as a bar. Perhaps I had done enough research on sex work in London, of which I had been unexpectedly reminded in both Moscow and Beijing, to be able to identify sex workers more efficient than others in our party. But we were inside now and the ‘barman’ was seating us at a table and plying us with bottled beer. A dozen scantily clad girls were watching television without any obvious enthusiasm (the sheer tedium of sex work is often underestimated). Two gay/bisexual women were kissing at the bar; one then apparently slapped the other, but I missed that. Nigel was the first to notice that the menu included the prices for different lengths of stay in rooms off the bar area. It seemed an amusing predicament to me, although Janet was uncomfortable and Steff sufficiently so to rapidly finish all our beers while our attention was diverted chatting. Ken has not been allowed to forget the evening he took us to a brothel.

Monday 20 August

This was our final full day. Once more we deliberately forewent the guided tour, which incorporated a rickshaw ride to the shopping precincts; nor were we the only dissidents. After another leisurely breakfast we again sauntered to Tiananmen Square, this time determined to make it to the Forbidden City. When the Ming Empire moved its base to Beijing in 1421, its emperors took up residence in this ‘city within a city’. Given the permanent, bold and colourful impact of the Ming Empire on Beijing, I was curious to know how it slotted into China’s mighty history. Fortunately I had packed Thompson’s ‘The Emergence of the Global Political Economy’. Things became clearer. Chinese world superiority coincided with the rule of the Northern and Southern Sung, stretching from the 10th into the 13th centuries. The dynasty of the Southern Sung, noted for its active encouragement of maritime commercial trade, eventually collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion in 1279. It was of course well after this time, in 1368, that the Ming displaced the Mongol invaders. What was distinctive about the Ming emperors was that they turned their backs on many Sung-Mongol practices. In a mood to avoid further conflict and to consolidate after their battles against the Mongols, the early Ming emperors suppressed private trade and through a series of prohibitions between 1371 and 1452 actually eliminated all legal coastal shipping (giving a boost to smugglers in the process). They had their successes before yielding to the Manchu dynasty in 1644 – ironically accomplished through their famed naval power – but the Chinese economy was never to recover from the Ming strategy of withdrawal from trade and zones of conflict.

It was the third Ming emperor, Yongle, who ordered the building of the Forbidden City. Between 1409 and 1420, 200,000 people were pressed into service. It was to be the home not for  a mortal king but for the Son of Heaven, a divinely-appointed intermediary between heaven (yang) and earth (yin). What impresses is its sheer size. Covering 720,000 square metres, it contains 8,706 halls and rooms. Its fussy architecture seemed to have been prescribed by the life of rituals led by the emperors. I took in little detail, being more interested, as at the Ming tombs, in the sociology of and feel for the absoluteness and exclusivity of autocratic Imperial power. Here was a city within a city kept at resplendent cost for an elite family ‘against the other’. Annette and I edited our own tour, stopping briefly for a coffee in, of all places, Starbucks, even buying a Beijing Starbucks mug. The exit, however, eluded us, and for a while the mass of walled pathways seemed like a maze.

From the 15th century we made a rapid and startling transition to the 20th. Beijing’s ‘Fifth Avenue’ opened out before us. Pedestrianized in part, this amazing street was home to a magnificent array of department stores. Finding a bookshop at last, I bought a cheap copy of the autobiography of the last emperor. We entered McDonalds in search of a loo but were overcome by shame and left immediately, settling for our old haunt, Coffee Language. We were served by a Korean girl with a strong American accent who moved jerkily, like a puppet. Coffee was complemented by a late lunch, while we rocked back and forth and gazed out at Qian Gate and the Square.

These last two days of relative autonomy from the ‘22’ had been rewarding: we had seen Beijing on our own terms, covering the main sites but also stop-starting our way down side-streets, haggling over prices on stalls, and just observing, usually over coffees.

Tuesday 21 August

The trip home was uneventful. Eva dithered at Bejing airport, which nearly cost us our seats. Roger and Carol and Chris and Edward upgraded. At Heathrow we dissipated with the scarcest of farewells. Maybe this was confirmation that the group comprised individuals (a Sartrean group-in-series). But it was a great trip and one to be commended. Trains journeys are a good way of seeing and taking in parts of our world.

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