Postcard from Beijing

The first thing that strikes you about Beijing is how quiet it is. Everyone knows the Chinese are the noisiest people on this planet, (you've only got to experience a provincial bus ride anywhere in Asia) but not in Beijing. In Beijing there are few motor bikes; cars and buses seem well tuned and muffled to excess as they amble along or sit silently at traffic lights; pedestrians don't seem to talk much on Beijing's streets and smile even less; the trolley buses make no sound at all. The loudest noise is the tinkle of a million bicycle bells. This quietude may be the result of the streets themselves: enormously wide boulevards criss-cross the city, and in every direction there are trees. The roads are very straight and very long; the longest, Dong Chang An Avenue, bisects the city for 40 kms and reminds me most of an endless Champs Elyseé. The pattern for all these avenues is always the same: four lanes for vehicles in both directions, an avenue of trees (often ravishing willows or patchy planes) divides these lanes from a wide bicycle lane as big as a London road, another avenue of trees separates the bicycles from what Americans might call 'the frontage road', yet a further avenue of trees shades the pedestrians and often there is then a 'street park' before one finally arrives at the buildings which front the boulevard. Each of these many boulevards is enormously wide and pedestrian subways to cross these mammoth roads are placed frequently. Though lavatorial in style, these subways are clean, bright, graffiti-free and not at all fearsome even at night.

I am in Beijing on business, and the easiest way to travel from 'The Holiday Inn Downtown' to the offices where I have my meetings is by subway. Again Paris is recalled: the older Metro lines with steel rails and straight-sided trains. Beijing Subway is much the same, but everywhere the Chinese characters are thoughtfully translated into English. Just as well: I would have got hopelessly lost otherwise. Some of the stations invoke disturbing memories: 'Tiananmen West' and 'Tiananmen East' (it's a big square!). You can travel anywhere on the subway network for a flat fare of three Yuan - about 25p or 35 cents. As Greater Beijing has a population of some 30 million souls, there is, as you can imagine, no shortage of labour. To enter the subway system one solemnly goes to a ticket office staffed by three or four dour-looking ladies, pays one's three Yuan, receives a ticket and then solemnly walks about 10 meters to another set of equally bad-tempered, military-style uniformed staff at the top of the descending escalator who take the flimsy ticket from you and promptly screw it up. At either end of the platform two ladies in uniform sit in boxes; their sole function is to wave a green flag to three drivers sitting in the train cab. Beijing Subway is heavily subsidised...

After a couple of days of this I got quite used to it and, on a free morning before I was to visit the British Council (First Sloane to speak to me: "Oh dear me no! I'm far too busy to see you!" but the second was much more helpful.) I took the subway to Tiananmen West and to the Forbidden City.

It faces onto Tiananmen Square; a vast open space with the huge main gate of the Forbidden City at its north end and Chairman Mao's equally enormous mausoleum at the south. Observing any city which has vast open spaces and colossal roads, one sees autocracy at work. Even now, hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced from their homes in Beijing to make way for parks and open spaces along the old route of the Ming Dynasty wall (what's left of it) to impress visitors to the 2008 Olympic games.

You enter the Forbidden City across four, parallel bridges spanning a rather uninspiring, stagnant moat. These bridges are straight off my mother's willow pattern plates. Crowds of Chinese tourists and long crocodiles of uniformed schoolchildren following red flags mill around these bridges and stand in ram-rod, unsmiling poses in the cold winter sunshine; later to have their photograph nailed to the wall in their hovel in Yunan province.

The gateway is so vast you walk through a tunnel, fortified at both ends by enormous red-lacquer and brass doors, to reach the first courtyard. All this is free, but nothing else is. It is curious that in Capitalist London one can enter the National Gallery or the Tate Modern free of charge, but in Communist Beijing you must pay for everything; even enclosed parks in Beijing levy a charge. At each step of the way in the Forbidden City, there stood another ticket office to disburse you of a further 15 Yuan. It was a cumbersome process: first you obtain your ticket, then you go to another booth to check in any bags (and pay more even for that) then you go back to the first ticket office where you are frisked and made to walk through a security screen, finally you can make your way up the steps of the enormous ramparts to see this particular building. I stood at the top of the first gateway and viewed Tiananmen Square from high above. Varnished tiles glittered in the morning sun as far as the eye could see. And tiny people ambling across the square brought home the enormity of the population of China. This is the spot from where the Politburo views the miles of missiles rolling past on Labour Day. We have seen so many images of Chairman Mao, Deng Xioa Ping, and Jang Xi Min waving solemnly or clapping politely in front of these lacquered columns it was a curious feeling to stand there myself. I would have liked, too, to have stood in the very stall in which Chairman Mao had relieved himself, but the splendidly appointed toilets were closed to the Hoi Polloi. The Emperors have not gone; merely changed their spots.

I was tiring of the crowds so walked through a side gateway through which private cars and taxis could cross through the Forbidden City and out the other side. It was a bit like the situation at Marlborough Gate in St. James's Palace with access to Pall Mall and The Mall through what is in effect part of the St, James's Palace complex. On this side I cold see the immensity of the Forbidden City with the high sloping stone walls stretching in a straight line into a hazy horizon. Identical, elaborate watch towers punctuated the long walls equidistantly at strategic points and at each corner. A straight moat followed the road and the wall. Not a forbidden city; actually a forbidding citadel.

Here the traffic and the people were numerical bearable and I spent a happy and peaceful time viewing the parks, gardens, walls and buildings which make up this extraordinary city within a city. The sun was bright and, reflected from the walls, quite warm. The buildings were uniformly beautiful: dark red lacquer and deeply-grooved, polished green tiles gave a satisfying unity to the ensemble. Everywhere was immaculately clean and well cared for. I have been told by other visitors to China this is the exception; most of China is a polluted, rambling, run-down mess and Beijing is an untypical show-case.

I walked for miles and finally my feet protested too much. I retraced my steps and walked out into the vastness of Tianenmen Square and sat for while on a bench in the warm afternoon sun. A vendor was selling sweetcorn on the cob so I bought one. It was bitter and hard and bits stuck in my teeth; not at all like the delicious, soft sweetcorn we can buy on every street corner in Bangkok. I thought perhaps it was the strain with which they feed cattle in Britain and Thailand - a metaphor not lost on me as I viewed the swarms of black-clad people criss-crossing the square, now casting long shadows as the afternoon dwindled quickly.

The following day I joined a small coach party to visit the Great Wall of China. We are told it is the only man-made object visible from space, but I tried to find it as we flew into Beijing on a cloudless day (it's not far out of the city) and failed at 20,000 feet, so I am a little sceptical it can be viewed from 20,000 miles.

Nevertheless it is a quite extraordinary achievement: 7,400 kms of wall, and sometimes two or three walls rambling across adjacent peaks two or three kms apart with watch-towers constructed out of huge blocks of stone balanced precariously on pointed ridges of the mountains. Our tour with only five tourists took us to an unrestored part of the wall where there were no other tourists and no souvenir shops. I was so thankful it did. We had the place to ourselves. The rest of the party were backpackers half my age and I was happy to let them forge on ahead as we clambered along the wall. Clamber is the word: the wall simply follows the line of the mountain ridges and can sometimes be at a 45° angle. Nothing was touched and the wall was disintegrating - if it had not been looted for building materials to construct local houses. Loose stones were everywhere, trees had taken root in the cracks in the blocks of stone and one was in immediate danger of falling headlong down the precipice below. I was not at all shod or clothed for such an adventure but manfully and breathlessly climbed up and along this enormous edifice. I took my time. The rest of the party, bored with waiting for this old fogy, had by this time disappeared over the next ridge and I found myself completely alone on the Great Wall of China.

I rested for a while at one of the watch towers. Everywhere was quiet but for the wind swishing in the branches of the trees. There was a deep blue reservoir far below me in the valley between the two mountains; I could see a parallel section of wall on the opposite side; tiny trucks were slowly traversing the lake but they were soundless. Ravens and, I think, an eagle soared in the cloudless sky. On the watch-tower's turreted walls graffiti announced that Sheryl from Adelaide had been here, and Foong loved Syuen. (I made that last bit up, but you get my drift...) There was a strong smell of urine in the still air inside the ruined tower. But none of this could shake my wonderment. What on earth possessed the Emperor to build this thing? - and all in 12 years apparently, though I could scarcely believe it. The walls are at least 50 ft high, in some places higher, and 20 ft broad, and the watch towers equally spaced no matter how difficult or precipitous the terrain. The outside wall, facing the enemy, was dressed the entire length in smooth stone to make it the more difficult to scale. Nor, for its entire length, is the wall situated on convenient plains, but takes the most unlikely course along the steepest mountain tops. In every direction I looked I could see the wall spiralling up and down this mountainous region. It would disappear, only to rise again on another mountain far in the distance. How many labourers died building this wall? How many crushed limbs and severed hands were there? We shall never know. I could only sit there and marvel at its construction and wonder at the stupidity of it all.

Suddenly two Chinese youths appeared running up the top of the wall, then two more, then three girls came panting along behind. In no time I was surrounded by a breathless gang of maybe 20 Chinese students who hollered across the ravines and called back to their more laggardly friends. They were friendly enough but my peaceful solitude had gone. I got up from my stone, smiled wanly and waved them a cheery good-bye before descending back down to the bus. This was scary; going back down was much more difficult than clambering up. No provision whatever was made for safety and I was on my own. I slipped and slid, clutched at branches, occasionally had to slide on my buttocks to take the long walk down to the road. Loose chippings, infill from the wall's original construction, made the going very unsure and I was quite frightened. "Just take it slowly. Watch every footfall." I said to myself over and over again as I slowly, slowly inched my way down. Why hadn't the tour operators warned me not to wear leather-soled shoes? If I twisted an ankle, or broke a leg, or slipped off the edge of the unguarded wall into the ravine below, I would just have to wait for my party to find me eventually.

It took me nearly an hour to get back to where the bus had dropped us. With much relief I finally took firm steps on the road and waited next to a stone-built hovel (once part of the wall?) for my fellow travellers to arrive back. An old, black-toothed crone parted a curtain, the only doorway to keep out the winter's cold, and, gesturing, invited me in to take shelter from the cold now that the sun had disappeared behind the mountains. She offered me bitter, green Chinese tea in a glass and tried to sell me some rather grubby T-shirts. I took the warming tea but felt rather guilty at rejecting her souvenirs. I looked about this one-roomed home. This was rural China in all its squalor. She had no heating that I could discern but her bed was piled high with grubby quilts and stained blankets. She heated water on a charcoal brazier which also, perhaps, provided a modicum of warmth in the fierce, northern Chinese winters. (Charcoal? Preservation of trees? Millions of rural Chinese doing the same? I didn't want to think about it.) She prattled at me in Chinese and I smiled wanly in reply. I hadn't a clue. Eventually I took courage to ask her about a need which had been pressing me for sometime and which the tea had exacerbated. "Toilet?" I asked hopefully. This English word she knew and pointed directions outside the curtained doorway and to a large, roofless, low-walled brick edifice at the side of the house. I was just about to enter when some road-menders on the other side shouted, laughed and gesticulated at me. Turning to enter I was confronted by a woman's head looking at me over the low wall. This was not, then, a private loo to the house but a communal one for all the surrounding habitations. My crone just had the bad luck to live next door to it.

Are you eating whilst you read this? Then I won't give a detailed account of what transpired after I waited for the woman to finish her business. Suffice to say it was a waterless hole in the ground; a latrine, an army camp on manoeuvres' worst nightmare. Bits of soggy used toilet tissue stared me in the face as I tried to pee without inhaling. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. The Chinese, I have to say, are not the fastidious cleanliness freaks which I have grown used to in Bali and Thailand. As I gazed back at this roofless midden, what, I wondered, do they do when it snows?

My flight did not leave Beijing the following day until the early evening, so Li, a young computer programmer I had met and who wanted to practise his English, suggested he show me round Old Beijing before I left. As I had only seen modern office blocks and 1950s style utilitarian apartment blocks (all across Beijing facing South with huge glass-enclose balconies to save on heating bills), I thought this would be a good idea. It proved to be a charming quarter, preserved by decree - and the fact that most of the Communist Party elite, not wishing to live themselves amongst the hoi polloi in their designed, planned living spaces, had taken over the area and restored the houses with a lot of money and a good deal of extra car-parking space. Through the middle of this quarter ran a huge, long lake bordered by willow trees and bridged at narrow points by more willow-pattern plate bridges. It was all very pretty. Each one storeyed house was painted a uniform grey and the great outer doors and windows painted in a ubiquitous red-ochre lacquer. The houses were really walled compounds of buildings, as they are throughout much of Asia, facing gable-end onto the road. Where a gateway door had been left open, I could see the upper-crust Beijingers were just as messy and dirty as their less privileged comrades. Rusty bicycles, old washing machines, cardboard boxes and general rubbish littered the alley spaces between the one-roomed buildings. And even here, the communal toilets were the norm. I watched amazed as a very well-dressed elderly lady, blue-rinsed coiffeur immaculate, left her gateway and, with small sluice bucket in hand, wandered across the road to her nearest earth closet. Were it not for the Mercedes and Mitsubishi Pajeros parked outside one would never know these were homes for the elite.

Having walked miles along the Great Wall yesterday, I now started to whinge as Li walked me down street after street of these grey houses. I wanted - nay, needed - a cup of coffee, but coffee is not to be bought in any café in old Beijing; only watery, green tea. Suddenly, over the low, prettily tiled, curling rooftops, I saw a familiar sign: a yellow 'M'. I never thought, in all my days, I would be so pleased to see a MacDonalds. I had the first cup of decent coffee I had all week - and it was warm! Bless you Ronald! I forgive you everything!