copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
China. Land of mysterious culture. Most populated country on earth. Home to mountain tribes, dissident provinces, mighty rivers, ancient traditions. Nation of frequent and radical political uprising and change. China has all this to offer.
Instead of exploring all that, I went to Beijing.
Beijing is not China anymore than Disneyland is the United States. Yes Beijing is streaked with ancient culture, yes the political power of the nation is centered there, thousands of tourists vist and photograph themselves in front of the portrait of Mao at the Forbidden City. Twelve million people live there, so there must be some of the traditional life, but there are also 38 McDonalds restaurants, Pizza Huts, KFC's and even a Hard Rock Cafe and TGIF.
Beijing is a very modern city, especially compared to the others I've seen in Asia. The roads were well maintained and organized. The public transport system, though a little shoddy, was massive and generally well-run. Shops were full of merchandise, and the local markets flourished with produce, meat and everyday needs.
The city sprawls across 20 kilometers and shows the strain of overpopulation. Everywhere one looks tower rough, cement apartment houses, and new ones under construction everywhere. With more new residents comes the eventural drag on the city infrastructure. Traffic is abominable, with even the most minor accident causing gridlock for blocks. Most of the vehicles in town are old, and lack any sort of air pollution control. As a result of this the air throughout the city is thick with soot, the kind you feel in your eyes as you walk down the street.
Waste control seems maxed out as well. In the south of the city flows a body of water I heard affectionetely called "The Perfume River" by local expatriates. The river is, in fact, the world's largest open sewer, emptying the solid and liquid refuse of the continually growing city. And it is a long, long way to the sea from Beijing.
My visit to Beijing became more of a rest stop than an actual exploration of the culture. Tired from eight months of constant travel I arrived in Bejing airport and promptly found myself getting ripped off at the airport by a taxi driver. After agreeing on a price for the drive to the city the driver again asked me the location of the hotel, discovering much to her mock dismay that it was farther than we agreed, and demanding more money. I asked her to pull the cab over, took my money and walked the half mile back to the airport to try again. For me this was a signal that I needed a break. I checked into an upscale room in a backpacker hotel and settled in for a two week stay.
There are advantages to being in a modern city. For instance, my Automatic Teller Machine card from New York functioned without difficulty, though the chinese chatacters on the screen took some getting used to. There was a McDonalds just a few hundred yards away, and they catered to forigners by handing you a photo menu as soon as you got to the counter. After months of noodle soup, McDonalds was my best friend. You could also get a cab any time of the day or night, and with a point to any spot on your handy tourist map you were on your way in relative comfort.
Initial plans to travel outside the city for a few days were stifled by opressive heat and crummy weather. For my entire two week stay the sun showed itself for three days. Not much to work with when your main goal is to make nice photographs. And the grey days, my first in months, gave me the blues and lended themselves to afternoons watching bad sports on cable television.
When I wasn't locked in my room there were some highlights. My trip to the Great Wall in Simatai was fun and a little awe inspiring. Hard to imagine a fear of invasion so great that a nation would devote 2000 years to building such a blockade. A day at the Summer Palace of China's ancient emporers proved interesting, focusing on ceremonial architecture and wandering through groups of school kids with matching hats crawling throughout the place.
The most interesting times were the one's I spent wandering around Tianamen Square in Central Beijing. The square is arguably the focal point of the city, just to the south of the Forbidden City and to the north of Mao's mausoleum. The square is bordered on the sides by the parliment building and history museum. It's a massive area of cement, sprinkled with monuments, soldiers, and thousands of tourists.
Most of the the visitors to the square are Chinese, and most of them have cameras, happily posing in front of everything of interest. And as it turns out, a six and a half foot tall white guy with a pony tail is a point of interest.
I estimate that in four leisurely trips to the square I was photographed by 90 chinese tourists. Sometimes with just one, sometimes families, once an entire bus tour. This was great fun. It always started slowly, with one shy tourist approaching me and cautiously asking to take my photo. Then the curious would begin to gather, and one after another they'd have me stand and smile, stand and smile, stand and smile.
Usually at that point I'd turn the tables on the assembling group and photograph them all photographing me. And this sometime created a ruckus. I'd take out my digital camera which has a video screen on the back. After I made a photograph I'd turn the image towards the people and show them what I'd just made. They would rush in close to see the picture and laugh and point at the people in the shot. Other visitors to the square would see those people looking at something, and they would rush up to see what was happening. Still more people would see this small group forming and chattering and they would come over to find out what they were missing. In no time I would have upwards of seventy-five people clamoring to get a look at a two inch video screen.
Funny how sensitive the Chinese government gets when people begin spontaneous gatherings in Tienamen square. My little roundups of people invariably ended when two or more uniformed soldiers waded into the crowd to see what was instigating such excitement in the Chinese tourists. And finding themselves the subject of an army crowd dispersment visibly shook some of the surprised locals. For all the talk of new freedom in China, the residents are still very frightened of the government and the army. I was just pissed off, and somewhat amused that my little digital camera nearly caused a riot.
After a while each of my trips to the square resulted in me meeting a proficient english-speaking local person who asked to walk with me and practice their english. Sometimes the conversations were dull, consisting of small talk relating to my age, marital status, and number of children. Sometimes though my intereprative new friend would be very interesting, taking questions from the crowd and discussing everything from my political views to the amount of money I made and ideas about western influences on mainland China.
All this activity, I was told, probably made me the target of one of the undercover officers infiltrating the square. For every uniformed soldier there are rumored to be four undercover. Any one out of the ordinary is open for scrutiny. I guess I stood out.
I heard a story at the hostel about four Australian guys visiting a few weeks before my stay. They thought it would be a hoot to have their photograph taken in the square baring their asses. It only took a few hours for the police to decend on the hostel and find the perpetrators, remove them to the central station and interrogate them, confiscate their passports and have them deported. Their visas were cancelled and they had to show airline tickets out of the country within four days. Ah, those fun-loving Aussies, Certainly a threat to the Chinese political system.
Aparently nothing I did warranted expulsion during my stay and after two weeks of lazing about the hotel I left the city by train, on my way to Moscow via Mongolia and Siberia. Three more chances to creat international incidents.