Saturday, 13 April 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2b: Beijing (I)

world-map beijing


Another week and another first for UTM, this time my V-log on countries that aren’t really countries. As I said when I posted it, I hope for this to become a regular series on various travel-related themes, (non-geographic specific), and subjects that I’m currently mulling over are guidebooks, what to pack (and what not), travel reading, travel viewing, why I love travelling by train, red tourism and travelling as a pilgrim. However, when they’ll appear is anyone’s guess.

The other big news is that I have finally finished my Ukraine, Moldova and Romania travelogue this week which will be posted after Across Asia With A Lowlander has been put up as the two are in many ways connected, the new travelogue being a (decade too late) completion of the old one.

But for now, back to that old one, and this week the Lowlander and I hit the Chinese capital where we manager to meet up with an old friend; remember Ryan from the trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines? Well, now he’s in Beijing… or is he?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



19th July, 2002 – Beijing, China

When did one day end and the new one begin? Anyone, whose ever spent a night trying to sleep in a seat on a bus, plane, boat or train, will know that it is hard to tell, since proper, refreshing sleep is alas but a dream. I was however, one of the lucky ones. I got some slumber that night, and when I groggily awoke the early morning light revealed a monotonous flat landscape of red-brick industrial towns, dominated by the terraces of the proletariat and the smoke stacks of their places of employment. This was Maoland but after a lack of proper sleep, and only disgusting fayre on offer in the restaurant car. And it was in there that the misery and humiliation was piled on. “I didn’t sleep,” said the Droll Dutchman.

“I did,” replied the misty-eyed Midlander.

“I know.” He paused. “You snored.”


“And drooled.”

Big “Oh.”

“It was disgusting.”

Beijing is a strange city. Although its population is just under thirteen million, it comes up on you all of a sudden. One minute it’s flat fields of grain, and then you’re smack in the middle of a sea of apartment blocks, with everyone preparing to alight at the soon-to-be-reached main station. Perhaps it’s because all the buildings are so huge, that it doesn’t take up a large land area. The Chinese capital is built on an immense scale that dwarfs even a tall Dutchman and rotund Englishman; veritably a city for giants. We went to the tourist desk and located a reasonable hotel, (the incongruously named ‘China’s Famous Brand Hotel’), which on the map was clearly just around the corner. We decided to walk, and the true scale of the city was revealed. After fifteen minutes, we seemed to have made very little progress indeed, and so hailed a taxi for the rest of the way. At first though, they were unsure as to where it was. At only thirteen storeys high it is far too insignificant to feature on most maps or in guidebooks. ‘Famous Brand’ it might have been. But obviously not that famous.

We showered and freshened up, and then set off for the wider world. Following our ticketing difficulties at Qingdao, we decided to try and sort our carriage onwards out as soon as we could, and so returned to the vast station to talk to the ticket man. Alas though, even our admirable foresightedness was not enough here.

“Shanghai? No sleepers to Shanghai on the twenty-first.”

“The twenty-second?”




It turned out that there was no sleeper to Shanghai for over a week, and we’d even have to depart a day later than we’d scheduled for a hard seat. And after our last trip in one of those, even that did not sound like a tempting prospect. Hmm… Perhaps we would have to alter our plan of going to Shanghai, Nanking, Wuhan and the Three Gorges Dam. Radically. We left the confines of the rail terminal without a ticket and with our nice schedule in tatters. This needed some thinking about, and such thinking takes time.

Whilst considering our future, we decided to do some sightseeing. No, correction, I decided to do some sightseeing, and the Lowlander didn’t object. I am sorry to say that I can be a bossy little bastard at times, and now was one of them. The thing was, we were in Beijing, and if there was one place in China that I wanted to see, it was here, but a short metro ride away.

Yes indeed. Some come for the temples, some for the Wall, some even for the food. But as I’ve said in great detail before, my object in visiting China was something different. I’m as red a tourist as one could ever hope to find, and for the seeker of socialism there are many shrines in that vast Empire of the People. But of them all, there is one, perhaps only second in the world on the Marxist’s Must-See List, right in the heart of the city. It’s the place where Mao declared the People’s Republic, the Congresses meet, the Great Leader is laid out, where the people protested against the Gang of Four and where the deviationists were gunned down. Yes indeed, if there is one place that sums up the history of the Communism’s greatest bastion, it is of course that vast expanse by the Forbidden City known to all as Tiananmen Square.

And as we emerged into the sunlight from the Tiananmendong metro station, there it was. Vast, no, vaster than vaster. An enormous expanse of grey stone, large enough to accommodate a million souls they say, flanked on one side by the Great Hall of the People where the decision-makers meet, and on the other by the colonnaded Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan (National Museum of Chinese History).

tianemon02 Tiananmen Square

And there behind me was the magnificent Gate of Heavenly Peace from which the square gets its name, (‘Man’ means ‘gate’, and ‘Tian’ is ‘heaven’), complete with its huge portrait of the man himself, Mao Tse Tung. Oh, how hard is his legacy to define?! Murderer of millions, or Mentor of the Masses. The man who fought, and against all the odds, won, the Kuomintang. The man who established the People’s Republic of China out of the ashes of the Second World War, and the man who did what few others could do: Kept that huge entity together. He too was the man who transformed that poverty-stricken country into a modern state, leaving it with order, industry, a communication system and the nuclear bomb by the time that he died. Yet that is but one side of the story. He too began the repression with the Hundred Flowers Campaign, caused great hardship (yet boosted production) with the Great Leap Forward, split with his greatest ally, the Soviet Union and then presided over what has come to be seen as one of the greatest catastrophes to befall China in her long, long history; the Cultural Revolution. For fourteen long years, the Red Guards plundered and wreaked havoc, the intellectuals died and anyone not wearing a badge of the Great Leader or found reading a book by an author other than He, was in big, big trouble. The economy halted, priceless historical sites were destroyed, a generation murdered and another brainwashed, and the considerable early achievements of the People’s Republic left in tatters. But how much was it due to him? Did he plan it all, or did it just get out of hand? How do we view what he has left us? Was he the monster that the West portrayed, or was he the benevolent genius of the Little Red Book? Who knows? I don’t know enough to say, although the best assessment seems to come from the Chinese government themselves who, instead of deifying their hero, take a somewhat mixed approach. The ‘Seventy-Thirty’ is what they call it. How they reached those figures I’ll never know, but to me they sound about right. Chairman Mao was well-intentioned and heroic, but he was also human, and humans make mistakes. Overall, he was about seventy percent correct, and thirty percent wrong. One can argue about the figures, but to me it sounds a lot better than the attitudes found in Eastern Europe for example, where the Communists were either unadulterated villains who raped the country, or esteemed heroes who gave today’s Ruritanias everything that they have today.

tianemon03 Where’s this Mao fellow then?

Well, whatever his legacy might be, I for one couldn’t resist it. I’ve always been one for a large dollop of totalitarian architecture, and let’s be honest, Tiananmen Square is the largest dollop on earth. The Lowlander and I wandered over those hallowed stones, taking photos by monuments of happy workers, brave soldiers, mausoleums and red-starred buildings, before heading to the stalls just off main square, and stocking up on Little Red Books, Mao badges and calendars of Revolutionary Generals. The fact is, like it or not, there is one thing that you must admit. The communists have style, more than any wishy-washy democracy anyway, and here was my opportunity to take a little piece of that style back home to my mantelpiece.

tianemon01 You say you want a revolution…

Not having had enough of all the Dictatorship of the Proletariat stuff, we then made our way to the Great Hall of the People, (the Maosoleum being alas, closed in the afternoons), where Party Congresses are held, and where the famous Great Hall with its red star ceiling can be found. And this detour, was not one that we humble members of the international proletariat revelled in.

little red book Reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

Actually, even for those not totalitarianly-inclined, the Great Hall of the People is a place well worth seeing. Each province has a chamber, decorated with objets d’art and the handiwork of the nation’s finest post-war craftsmen and artists. And then of course there’s the Hall itself. Vast, enchanting and instantly recognisable after all its TV appearances. What the Lowlander and I enjoyed most though, were the opportunities for silly and rather immature photographs. What better than a Dutchman taking a great leap on a red carpet by a sign marked ‘Forward!’ Or how about an Englishman reading a Little Red Book, by a big red star, on a very red carpet and wearing red and stripes? Well, we thought it was funny anyway.

Perhaps you had to be there?

great leap forward Great Leap Forward!

Back at the station, we located a travel agent who somehow could get tickets that the booking office could not. Nonetheless, he was still unable to help us with our Shanghai request, and so instead we decided to scrap the whole idea of heading down the Yangtse, (‘well, everyone does it you know darling, so au fait), and instead to head straight across Northern China to the provincial city of Yinchuan in Ningxia Province. Ok, so we’d never heard of it, but we were getting a little fed up of big places, and it was in the direction that we needed to head. And so it was set, and exhausted, we returned to our hotels.

tianemon04 Tiananmen Square: A great place to do gymnastics!

Our day was not yet done though. Back in Japan, a fellow teacher friend of mine, Ryan from Iowa, (readers of my Philippines travelogue may remember that he put up with me for two weeks there), informed me that he would be in Beijing that day, and that to me, was too good an opportunity to miss. He left the address of his hotel on the Internet so we hired a taxi and set out to find it.

Driving through the vast Chinese capital at night, it was clear just how much the city had moved forward in recent years. Wide, well-maintained highways were flanked by plush new hotels and office blocks, all looking forward to a great new era in Chinese history. Ryan’s hotel, whilst new, was smaller and sadly Ryanless. We left a message and went to dine on Chinese specialties at a nearby restaurant, (which had the most amazing teapots, with a metre-long spout!), and returned afterwards, but alas, our American comrade was still nowhere to be found. Oh well, maybe tomorrow, and besides, it was probably for the best as we were both ready to drop off to sleep, and so we took a taxi back to the (Not-so) Famous Brand Hotel and did exactly that.

Next part: 2c: Beijing (II)

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