January 7, 2017
30°54 N 116°23.5 E
We returned to New Zealand by way of Beijing using air miles for our first mainland China visit. We were on a 72 hour transit visa and stayed three nights at the Marriott in the CBD. Louis Liu, Dickson’s man in China, took care of the details.
We had landed in a dirty yellow brown fog. I thought it curious that the orange jumpsuited ground crew all wore white surgical masks. As I disembarked I breathed a sulfur taste to the air and my eyes burned.
Louis met us and escorted us to his Toyota and off we went through the toxic haze to find our hotel. By now it was after sun down but the sun has a hard time even when it was up. Louis saw that we were roomed and then joined us for dinner. He explained the he was off to Shanghai the next day to check on Dickon’s shipments to Chicago but he would meet us first with our guide, Susan, in the lobby at 9:00 and then we would be off to the Wall and the Ming Tombs.
Susan was an enthusiastic thirty year old had studied had English at the university. We climbed into a white drivered Mercedes and wove our way through the smog, pedestrians, cars, trucks and bicycles. After an hour we passed through a two mile tunnel and emerged into a more visible atmosphere of mountainous rock studded with brown pine trees. We had already passed part of the wall but Susan was taking us to best part 'where Obama came'.
We whisked past the guards to the entrance, bundled into our winter coats and climbed out.
There it was in front of us, climibing up the mountains and what we now rightly call a World Heritage Site. I believe Susan’s pride is a reflection of her billion plus countrymen whose ancestor’s suffering is entombed in this monument. As she recounted the masses who worked and died in its building I could not imagine anyone putting up with that without revolting. But here was the Wall I had heard so much about and I had to admit that the emperor had the long view. I was impressed.
Susan recommended climbing the north section-'not as steep', and ‘maybe to the third tower’. We did and continued on, leaving her behind and climbed to the fourth. She was winded, no doubt paying the price for breathing the local air. On our return she declared us ‘heroes’.
By the morning of the second day I had given up with Google and Chrome and decided to download Baidu, the Chinese Google. I loaded Baidu and, of course, all returned hits were in unintelligable Chinese. I gave up. We put on our masks and met Susan.
A taxi dropped the three of us half of Tiananmen Square away from the Forbidden City which could just be seen through the grey haze. As we made it across the Square Susan's pride glowed as she described ‘the largest square in the world that can hold a million people’.
I recounted a play at Chicago’s Timeline Theatre about a reenactment in the Square of the famous photo of defiance by the Tank Man. I reviewed the plot of the play which supposedly presented the Chinese viewpoint where the hero was the driver of the tank who disobeyed orders and refused to run down the citizen.
I asked Susan who she thought the hero was.
She had no opinion but, “I did hear about that event from another tourist,” and lead us underground and up the stairs to the Forbidden City. That same day, after reading an article about Bejing’s bad air on my New York Times app, China now blocked the NYT. I imagine Baidu does not report about the Tank Man.
Like the Wall,the Forbidden City left me in a state of awe and befuddlement. The hype was right. This has to be seen to be believed. I am amazed that so many people were willing to die building something that one person considered necessary. The emperor must have been terribly insecure.
The Beijing we saw had wide boulevards, massive shopping malls displaying gifts for the upcomming Year of the Rooster and monumental government buildings all filled with a masked population of walkers, drivers and bike riders rushing through a mushrooming skyline that reveals itself block by block through the dirty air. Foreign made goods are in demand but heavily taxed while the US imports low cost Chinese goods without restrictions. The Chinese are proud and their government, elected, as Susan explained, by party members, not the people, and intent on becoming the other superpower. Its billions may have trouble breathing but, in the long history of China, have probably never had it better.
- [ Part II ] -