Monday, 16 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 55 Days At Peking? No - Only 5

It did not take long for the battleaxe stewardess to pipe up when the plane landed at Peking Airport.

'No look. No see,' she yelled as she pulled the blind down. There was plenty to see as we taxied around the apron towards the terminal building. There weren't many passenger planes, but the whole of the Chinese Air Force seemed to be parked on the concrete. Row upon row of Chengdu Jian-7's, the Chinese copy of the Russian MiG 21 stood near the terminal building. The Kodak Instamatic excelled itself and I managed to take a sneaky photo. For a flash I felt like a Philby, Burgess or Maclean, before reality kicked in and my spying activities would have been viewed on a par with Mr Bean.

It was hot in Peking. A different kind of heat, very dry and dusty with the air full of sand blown over from the Gobi Desert, or so they say. It affected some of the group and the asthma sufferers were ill.

We stayed in the tallest building, the Peking Hotel. It still retained most of its turn of the century chic with ornately decorated foyers and halls. From our bedroom on the sixth floor we could see the whole city, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to the right, Wangfujing Street to the front and the many old streets and low level houses to the left. My room mate became very excited:

'That's where Felix Greene lives.' Since crossing the border, he had been clutching a book by Felix Greene and was on a mission to meet him.

'Who is Felix Greene?' I had asked naively at the beginning of the trip and received every last bit of information about how he was Graham Greene's cousin, had managed to secure a visa which was nearly impossible to live in a small house in Peking. He was considered to be a 'Red' as he always wrote sympathetic articles and books about China, Communism and Chairman Mao. He was also seen to be an eccentric adventurer living in such a 'wild' place.

My friend tracked him down. It wasn'tan hard, finding one of the few Europeans who lived in the old city. He received a lecture on the good qualities of life under the communist regime and returned to the hotel with a sense of triumphalism akin to the return of an Arctic explorer.

The overriding memory of the Peking Hotel was the long corridor between the old and new buildings. Spaced at three yard intervals on either side of the corridor were metal pots. Initially everyone thought they were either ashtrays or empty pot holders. Soon it became apparent that they were neither. They were spitoons. The noise of people clearing their throats followed by a ping as they hit the target, at times was deafening.

There was a new train out to the Great Wall. A tourist train, with special tourist class seating, tourist prices and even a unique tourist ticket. It dumped you quite a long way from the Wall and we had to walk uphill, for what seemed like miles in the heat. It was worth it. Having seen it, every other similar defensive structure pales into insignificance. I cannot get enthused about Hadrian's Wall, for example, however much people try to explain the magnanimity and magnificance of it. To me, in comparison, it is like a retaining wall in someone's garden.

Our group was lucky. The tourist expansion had not yet begun. It was still mostly natural and unspoilt, bar for a few hawkers. none of us felt it would stay like this for long.

As we started our descent down the hill in the direction, one of our group said:

'I'm absolutely knackered. I'm buggered if I'm going to walk all the way back.'

I thought no more about his remark until I saw him a couple of hours later on the train, looking slightly shaken. He had seen a truck standing in a queue of traffic, heading in the direction of the station and had jumped onto the back without the driver. The traffic had cleared. The truck had gathered speed. It passed our group. It passed the station. It passed some Red Guards leaning on a signpost which read:


That was when he decided that he must do something and do something fast, so he banged on the roof of the cab. The driver, Mao capped with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, Andy Capp style looked as if he had seen a ghost. The white devil on the back made him scream, jam on his brakes and drive into the ditch.

By then it was a long walk back to the station. Before that, he ran into the Red Guards where a heated exchange took place. The Chinese speaking Chinese, the Englishman speaking English and neither understanding anything the other was saying. In the end the Red Guards let him go and he avoided being incarcerated. When he sat down on the train and analysed his hairy experience, the bizarre thought went through his mind that he might be the first Englishman to be shot by the Chinese since the Korean War.

Following the Great Wall trip, there were the usual tourist visits to the Fragrant Hills and the Summer Palace, where we were told Mao liked to walk and recite poetry, the Ming Tombs and the Forbidden Palace. The trick was to dodge the increasing number of American tourists we came across.

The best time to do this was early in the morning. I used to like to walk around the Palace walls. It was a hive of activity with people of all ages limbering up with Tai Chi Chuan.

'If you are a mugger,' said the guide when we returned to the hotel, 'don't attack an 80-year-old. They will kill you.'

There were even opera singers exercising their voices by the moat, people meditating, many friends walking and the occasional jogger enjoying the peaceful early sun and gentle warmth. The moment was ruined by the loud voice of an American lady, I heard from over the wall of the Forbidden Palace:

'Jeez it's dark in here. Why can't they turn on any goddamn lights in here?' It was in the sort of voice that you tended to know from the Golden Girls or Joan Rivers. My step hastened, but in the opposite direction.

The entertainment in the evenings was a simple. There were no nightclubs or discos. There were few bars. We had bicycle races in Tiananmen Square and we watched a wild eyed Spanish tourist play the guitar and his gypsy looking girlfriend lead a Conga with 200 Chinese behind. We walked in the park with hundreds of couples. We watched the film on a large open air screen - Convoy, dubbed in Chinese which somehow seemed to turn Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw and Ernest Borgnine into the same sounding voice. I always wonder how the Chinese censor coped with translation of the film's earthy phrases like 'piss on you and piss on ya' law.'

Our last night we stayed in Peking was a special night. Our guides, who some of us had made great friends with, suddenly became serious and said they wanted to take us to see Democracy Wall. When met with our general unenthusiasm, they said to three of us that we were going if we liked it or not and three of us reluctantly went.

Democracy wall was around for a relatively short space of time. It was a wall to the West of the Forbidden City on Chang'an Avenue where anyone was permitted to pin up written complaints of any kind. This was a chink in the united front of the Chinese Communist Party and for a time it was exploited. In January 1980, six months later, Deng Xiaoping cancelled peoples' constitutional right to hand posters. Democracy Wall was moved to a park in a suburb and quietly run down. Maybe the above piece of paper, which I ripped off the wall and pasted into my scrapbook, is the last actual evidence of  this part of Chinese history.

We spent two hours there. It was an extraordinary place. It felt like a small bubble in a huge space, where anyone could say what they felt. Our guides translated every notice, from a major attack on Government policy to someone who said he was angry at not having a bath in his house.

Today with the internet and globalisation, the wall seems a trivial matter. But it was far from that. I felt our guides were brave in taking us there - it was not on the tourist route. They were students at Beijing University, a hotbed of anti-communist militancy. It was as if they wanted us to be messengers and spread the word around the world. In one respect we had a brief glimpse of the future. The actions of the university students would lead to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, ten years later.

We left Peking the next day on a JAL DC8 jet bound for Tokyo. For some reason I was expecting the battleaxe stewardess to be there, pulling down the blinds. But she wasn't. She was replaced by courteous and attentive staff, handing out sashimi and sushi with pots of sticky green tea and fragrant jasmine scented hot towells.

It was perfection, but I wanted to go back to the imperfect China.


  1. Do you mean magnanimity (of Hardian's wall)?

  2. Sorry - badly written. I should have made it clearer.

    Yes, in a way which marks me down as a contender for Private Eye's Pseuds Corner, I did mean 'magnanimity'. Of course I should have added 'magnificance' too.

    I do find that people often try to excite me about the structure of Hadrian's Wall. They say it is a generous wall at over 80+ miles long and stacked full of history. Because of the vandalism over hundreds of years, I feel it is disappointing in most places. Just look at those lovely stone farmhouses adjacent to the Wall and the fine churches along the Solway Coast to see where the stone went.

    Now, that's not to say I don't love many things about it - the moody weather, the cold, the thought of soldiers from the Med, Africa and the Middle East shivering, the use of the natural landscape to enhance the defences etc etc

    When you have been spoilt enough to see the Great Wall of China - it is hard not to think of Hadrian's Wall as an equal - especially when filling up the car on the West Road in Newcastle and spying the bit which looks like a retaining wall between the tyre pressure pump and the Indian restaurant!

    Thanks for putting me right.