Leaving China, from the old Beijing Station just off of Jianguomen, (the eastern end of Chang’an Da Jie) nearly 30 years after leaving that same station in the fall of 1987 has left me melancholy and bit stunned. It is a different country than the one I remember, built up obviously, everything modern and up to date including the people. But, as with the old China, there are very few broad generalizations about the new China that can’t be shown to be wrong in a multitude of ways. It is too big and too complex to apply easily digested bromides to it and expect them to mean anything.
We are headed north toward Mongolia and then on to Irkutsk. My compartment mate is from Singapore, speaks good Chinese and English of course. I was only in China for about two weeks. I didn’t have to go to Russia, I had not bought any tickets or scheduled anything. I could stay in China another two or three weeks, wandering around some of the many cities I have never been to. It does seems like I should have stayed longer, visited more places, because I am so at home here. But it was enough. Everyday, I walked, focusing on neighborhoods rather than the tourist exhibitions. I did those too, but I tried to wander where I wasn’t supposed to, and focusing on who was directing the focusing rather than looking where I was supposed to look. And I tried to talk to people as much as I could. By the end my language came back pretty well, I had the rhythm down, and I would have gotten even better. In fact I am continuing to get more “fluent” which I define as being able to speak without thinking, of self translating. I don’t have to think to speak now, except occasionally when I search for a word or phrase, but I don’t stress about it, just try and find another way to say it. It just comes out now easily.
Out here in northern Hubei, it looks like Eastern Oregon, the rolling plains, semi-green, like the high plains of the west, little rivulets at the bottom of the arroyos, villages, Chinese villages with walls, faded slogans painted, cows, donkeys eating, and power grids traversing the hills. There was even a big wind farm of those giant electrical generating enemies of Don Quixote, that seemed identical to the ones back in Kansas and nearly every other place in the west. Some kind vetch is planted in miles of terraces, to stop erosion.
One of my Chinese friends convinced me to install, or rather re-install WeChat on my phone. I think it is better in many ways than Googletalk, now called Hangouts. My wife and I have been using it for the whole trip, and will probably continue to - you can make a free phone call with it essentially, as well as all the other stuff - photo and video sharing and the like. It has a nice basic design.
I spent most of the last month walking, around Saigon, Hanoi, and Xian, Beijing. My schedule is compressed, I guess because I needed to do it first, and planning was hard. Timing the visas. I know a little more now. One thing I didn’t anticipate was that I would be in China during the “wuyi” holiday, “5-1”, May 1st, International Workers day. It is a three day weekend and everybody was traveling, which meant getting train tickets to where I wanted to go was nearly impossible. I started in a Chinese southern city, but couldn’t get to Chongqing or Chengdu. By luck managed to find a ticket to Xian, so I decided to visit fewer cities and stay longer. I’ll come back to Xian in a few paragraphs.
Thursday, May 11
I got a good night’s sleep. At about 1 AM the Mongolian border patrol came on the train woke everybody up and took our passports. They are harsher with the Singaporeans and Malaysians than with me or with the Aussies couples with berths in this car. They were a group of about ten men, all between mid-thirties and late forties, planning to take a Land-Rover tour of deep Mongolia, stay in yurts and ride horses, (none had ever ridden a horse before). The Mongolians were not impressed by them, or me for that matter, but to me they were outwardly polite. They had a harsher tone when waking them and the Malay-Singaporean Chinese give it back to them. The inter-Asian jawing and bitching can seem a little disconcerting, but it doesn’t really mean much. In the end, it was all hot air, there were no consequences for anyone.
It is chilly, actually, I was cold for the first time since landing in Saigon nearly a month ago. I am on the train, my Singaporean roommate is in the bunk above, sleeping off the heavy drinking he and his buddy’s from his city and Malaysia did yesterday. They started early, at 11:30 am yesterday and kept my cup replenished too. It was too much for me, and I slept much of yesterday afternoon. But none of that today. I want to be awake. I feel good. It's about 5:30 and the sun is up.
I should have written more over the last month because I had what I thought were many great thoughts and insights as I walked around, but there was too much to do. Saigon and Hanoi, both hot, kept me out on the street, especially Hanoi. There I was mesmerized, often sitting outside drinking beer at a tiny cold food and beer bar next to a busy intersection watching motorcycles avoid each other. Vietnam would be a great place to retire, so warm and beautiful with mountains and beaches and people who for some odd reason, like Americans. It is open and free, not to say that the Communist party there is any less severe than in China, but only that it is about 10-15 years behind, both financially and in the physical infrastructure. So they can’t afford to control things too tightly. That was China in the 80’s when you could do or go where you want because they couldn’t afford to watch you too closely.
For example, the internet is open in Vietnam. I would guess the reasons are one, to encourage tourism and two that they have decided that for now, they don’t want to devote the human resources needed to staff a Bamboo Firewall or whatever it would be called. And of course, it is Vietnam, not China. China is different.
Anyway, now, out here in Mongolia, I think that these open spaces, out here in the desert, is conducive to an American thinking about things more than in the crowded cities of China and Vietnam. I feel comfortable out here in a strange way, the land seems so familiar, you almost expect to see shit-kicking cowpokes leaning on a corral. Contrariwise, urban Chinese friends visiting little Portland Oregon have told me they feel oddly uncomfortable with so few people around, and didn’t want to go look at the mountains or ocean where there would be even fewer people. The park next to Naito Drive along the WIllamette in downtown Portland was as much nature as they could stand.
I have taken a lot of pictures, not necessarily good ones, and will have lot’s to say annotating them. I assume I will have time to do that because this “wide open spaces” view from a train is going to get very familiar as I head out across Siberia after getting to Irkutsk.
Because I had been a Google Gmail and Hangouts kind of communicator before getting here, I was isolated from social media once I left Vietnam for China. Gmail seems to get delivered about once a day in China in the wifi zones of hotels and coffee shops. A Chinese person told me that there is schedule well known on campuses where they have to use it to communicate with the West, and that this will keep somebody at their desk finishing work so as not to miss the daily drop. It seemed to me it was at about 6 PM China time. Of course Chinese businesses just pay for a VPN on their phones or wherever to get around it. Although I noticed even well off Chinese turn it on, use it, then quickly turn it off on their phones. There may be other penalties beyond the economic costs, I don’t know.
Anyway the first city I visited in China was my shakedown cruise for the shock that continued to astound me over my stay there. Places I knew, places I was familiar with were gone, even as I stood on the exact spot that I had before 30 years earlier. It was like in the movie Back to the Future, when Marty went back to his hometown where BIff (Trump) was now President, but they had flying skate boards etc. They buildings are all tall, shiny, cleverly architected and never ending, spreading out toward the horizon that used to be farmland. The streets are clean and wide, the freeway intersections looked like hypergeometric rings, and are filled with European luxury cars. The phone network extends down into the subways, as well as out deep in the hinterlands from trains, and the parks and temples all looked like DIsneyland.
It is the change in the people though, the people that I noticed. The young fill the streets, all dressed to display their own unique style. They are not self-conscious about it either. They stare at their phones while walking, which might account for some of it, but almost nobody stares at me, especially not the young. Maybe it is because I am old, and old people regardless of their hue or hair color, are not the eye candy they used to be. The class differences are starkly apparent on the street compared to the 1980s. There are the rich, who you don’t see much on the street, but usually getting into or out of Rolls and Maseratis, the educated young, the old and the poor. In Beijing, it seems like there is relentless warfare on the poor, particularly around Tiananmen, with the soldiers and police checking IDs of anyone who dressed a little shabbily. And they caught them too, sitting groups of them down on the sidewalk, photographing them, waiting for the paddy wagons. You need special permission to live in Beijing, perhaps even just to visit it.
The educated and well off youth are so much bigger than before, both in girth and in height. For me, with my own particular lens on life, it was the women and girls who stunned me. Chinese women have of course always been alluring, but now the streets are like a high end fashion runway. Such amazing beauty! Who could sit at a laptop writing when that was all around you.
Settle down, I tell myself, you are a 65 year old retired American, not particularly rich nor disposed to all of the potential difficulties such thoughts could lead to...only here for the show thank you. And anyway, you could see the attitudes were much different than back in my day here in the mid-80s. The West and America held an immense fascination for China then, for many reasons. Westerners were rock stars just by not being Chinese. Now there is no mystery to the West anymore. And the rules have changed too, for the better. There are no special places in train stations for westerners to sit, no (apparent to me anyway) rules barring Chinese from entry into some hotels. That kind of special treatment made me uncomfortable back in those days, but it seems to not exist anymore.
All of this has been in place for a long time of course, mostly I think as an acknowledgement by the government that things had to change after the events in Beijing in May and June of 1989. Even though the Party re-exerted control, things were different and would never be the same. It was a truth everyone understood even while not acknowledging it too much. The events in Tiananmen were really what freed China. I know that sounds like blasphemy, but I think it is true. After Tiananmen, I think the Party (about 10% of the country are party members) made a deal with the people, that you stay out of Government, and we will stay out of your lives. It can’t be denied that this had its beginnings when Deng Xiaoping ended the Cultural Revolution and said, black cats, white cats who cares as long as they catch mice, and to go get rich. Discrimination against capitalist-connected families ended. Travel restrictions ended. (Except now being re-applied against the poor moving into the cities.) You could work where you want, bitch about the government to your family and friends all you want, just don’t be too public about it. Chinese could now leave their jobs, start businesses, and say pretty much what they wanted in private. The intrusive apparatus that kept in touch with people’s personal thoughts and attitudes was slowly dismantled. I think Tiananmen really made all of that possible.
Needless to say, it is still a Communist dictatorship. But the Party realized that they had a very tall order to fill if they wanted to remain in power. They really had to make people’s lives better, and the measure of that was there for all to see. The West, with its cars, and vacations, and capacity for individual expression was the yardstick. China became a meritocracy in many ways and the legacy of Communism forced it to have the trappings of equality and fairness. The best students could soar as high as their professional and personal aspirations allowed. Well, not so much for human right’s lawyers and political columnists and consultants, but definitely in the sciences and engineering etc. No more fear being called a running dog of the capitalists.
All that leaves aside the problem of corruption and the unequal opportunity for the Princelings and Princess of the Red Families, the children of the high party members. It is well known and I know it up close, but I will leave it for others to describe.
I have met a couple of Americans on this trip who seem genuinely angry that Mao’s picture oversees Tiananmen and his mausoleum stands in its center. How can a man who caused so much suffering still be publicly venerated? It’s a good question, one that is difficult to get a straight answer from otherwise frank and forthcoming Chinese people who I know. They acknowledge the horror of much of his legacy, but will often turn the discussion to the old days, the humiliation of China by the West and Japan over the last 150 years or so, and that Mao took the first steps to reverse that. China has a long history and they have the patience to endure the slow turning of its wheel - it seems to be built into the Chinese psyche. History takes a long time to sort itself out. Faulkner said, (I’ve said this in another context recently so I am sick of hearing myself think it) “The past isn’t ever dead. It isn’t even the past.” And of course Zhou Enlai answered the question about the long term effects of the French Revolution with the quip, “It’s too soon to tell.” The more you study the past the more it stares you in the face as you look out at the world. Even though China has seemed to have erased its past with the amazing physical modernization of the last quarter century, the robe-cloaked scholars of the Qing dynasty still stroll among the high rises where once winding hutongs stood. Its there behind the eyes of the old ones and buried in the national consciousness. It’s just too soon for the Chinese to really come to grips with the question of Mao.
So the first cities I visited were really for gawking. I didn’t know anyone, but strolled out around the parks and museums like Jed Clampett on Rodeo Drive.
Xian April 29 (Sorry for flipping back and forth - not a device, just the way it is coming out)
I got off the train and immediately realized I my bowels were about to revolt. Perhaps they remained quiet on the train because other than when I have been camping, I haven’t used a squat shitter since - well 30 some years ago.
OK, let's start closer to the beginning here, a little more politely. I had several reasons for making this trip, and returning to China after 30 years. Some personal, some just wide-eyed, wanderlust and hunger to see what history had done to my old place. But perhaps foremost in my mind was to find Lingna, Qi XInghua’s widow and their son, who I remembered as seven year old XuanXuan.
I have written about Qi before, his passing was a great blow, and I still feel it. We were born within six months of each other during the Korean War when Americans and Chinese were killing each other. We knew each other in both America and in China, and I always assumed we would be old men visiting and communicating with one another into our dotage. Anyway, after teaching me Chinese at the University of Oregon, he returned to Xian Medical School, and the next year invited me to teach English there.
So last week, when I got off the train, I saw the first thing that I remember from 32 years ago when I got off the train in Xian on a hot August day in 1985 - the back gate to the inner city, down Jiefang lu - Liberation Avenue. It was 5 in the morning, relatively cool still, so I decided to walk to Medical school, where I had taught. My hotel was in that direction generally, but I didn’t think they would have a room ready for me this early. First things first though. I saw the Hilton Hotel was on my way, inside the city so I kept my eye out for it because I had to go baaad, and it was getting worse. But, eventually I got there, rushed through the lobby and nature took its course in the proper place, and I washed my hands and headed out of the Hilton, thanking them in my own way for their hospitality.
Xian had changed, but inside the city walls the town was still recognizable. The streets had not needed to be dug up and widened, because they were wide before. New hotels were up, but some of the old ones remained, like the Sofitel on Renmin Square, which had ties to the local government and was so massive it had historical significance.
The first real significant change was at Gulou, the South Gate, from the inside of the city. There used to be a traffic circle and some rundown shops there, but now it was all rebuilt, with bike lanes, basically it had a whole facelift.
But it was outside the walls on the south side where the change was striking. Brand names plastered all over the gleaming skyscrapers that surrounded the gate. There is a moat in front of the South gate and adjoining walls as well. That brought back a memory…
My good friend Jim Barry, the legendary correspondent who left China in December of 1985, after reporting on a killing of a Muslim by an ethnic Chinese and China’s slow move to prosecute the crime. His Voice of America reports led to huge crowds of Muslims gathering at their Mosque, which made the Chinese nervous and led to them asking Jim and his wife Mikki to leave China at their earliest convenience, like tomorrow. After that, Jim trekked into Afghanistan at the height of their war against the Russians and reported from the back of caves with a squad of hash smoking Mujahadeen while the Russian helicopters pummeled the cave entrance with rockets. (later Jim would be the only reporter to ever get John Gotti to answer questions at length on camera.) Anyway, on his leaving China, Jim willed me his connection with Reuter's News service in Beijing and said if I had a story, call this number, and if they run it they will give me $50.
So, back to the Moat. It happened a couple of months later, during the tradition called Lantern Festival which falls right after Chinese New Year. In Xian, people make beautiful multicolored lamps and hang them on their roof. People then climb up on the high, thick walls around the city built during the Ming Dynasty and look down at all the lights from the lanterns after dark.
The next day I saw a procession of trucks into the medical school where I worked. I was standing next to the President Elect of the University, Ren, who liked to practice his English with the four or five foreigners who worked on Campus. He told me that 24 people had been pushed by the surging crowds looking to see the lanterns. They had been pushed off the wall on to the rocks around the moat below, killing them. They were bringing the bodies to the medical school, for what I suspect was autopsies, or to be used for research, not really sure why. I remember Ren telling me, ”It is such a shame this happened. When the foreign press reports on this, I am sure it will make China look uncivilized.”
Ding, DIng, Ding. Foreign press? Oh, yeah, I am a “stringer” for Reuters. Yes, a story, I have a story. $50 was a lot of money. My monthly salary for teaching in China back then was I think 400 yuan RMB, maybe 500, I can’t clearly remember. At the black market exchange rate, (RMB was not officially convertible to dollars back then) of 7 to 1 my Chinese monthly salary was $60 - $70 dollars. So I went to a nearby hotel, (which I would discover has been replaced by a bigger fancier Chinese hotel now) and called Reuters. They asked how to confirm, I said call the police station in Xian.
I called back later in the week, to find out how I get my money, but the Xian cops denied it ever happened. No $50. I forgot about it.
About two months later, Qi, my friend and boss came to my room. We talked casually for a while and then, almost in a by-the-by manner, he asked me if I had called a newspaper about the people who were killed on the wall? I said yes and he said the internal security want to throw me out of the country because of it. He asked if I planned to continue making calls to newspapers and I said no. He said not to worry he would take care of it.
So that was my journalism career in a nutshell. As I said, the moat is still there as are the Ming Dynasty Walls.
It is about 6-7 KM from the train station to the Medical school, where I formerly taught, so I continued south down the main north-south Avenue, now a long canyon of skyscrapers. I had about 50 lb in my big Osprey backpack, but I had been walking every day all day for three weeks, so it wasn’t too hard, even in the growing morning heat. I got the school and approached the old gate, which had changed little except for the electric crossing gates for the cars. The guard was my age and I asked, had he known Qi.? No. Could I go in and walk around, and he said no. It hadn't sunk in that I was stymied and might never find Lingna - But - just as I started to turn to leave an older lady, (my age) came up and said “Qi Xinghua!” Her name is Xu Ji ru, and she had been Qi’s student and was now a professor of Microbiology at the school. She had lived over in Belfast during the “Troubles” when the Real IRA was bombing pubs and the police were shooting Catholic demonstrators. Anyway, we toured the campus, which was much prettier now, the trees had grown up and there was grass everywhere, like a real campus, not the dusty stalag it had been in 1985.
She didn’t know where Lingna was, and we went to her office and she made calls, asked a few people but they didn’t know or guessed. We became WeChat friends, and she said she would keep trying. A day later, her grapevine paid off and she found out that Lingna was living with her son’s family, Xuan Xuan, now 38, a Phd from Qinghua, (the MIT of China) with (I found out all this later when I met him) a dissertation in Artificially Intelligent Automation, a CEO of a start up with 65 of the best programmers in China working on the next generations of networking software. He is funded by some famous American companies, and eally likes what he is doing..
A few days later, when I got to Beijing, we had a great reunion in Beijing, really emotional. Lingna is a busy grandmother and looks to be a fit 50 year old, not her real age, which if you know mine, you know hers. She and I walked around the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Lingna never learned to speak English very well and she has forgotten most of it, but she really wanted to communicate with me. So we talked for more than two hours as we walked. She said hi to Mary my wife, who she knew well and liked when we lived in Xian.
My first novel was dedicated to Qi in the foreword and I gave them a copy, which her completely fluent in English son, little Xuan Xuan, now Qi Yaxuan, (his name means Asia Blazing), said he would read. I wish the novel was more worthy of his father’s memory, but it was the best I could do.
I have other friends in Beijing who I visited too, former students, who also knew and got to met Lingna for the first time in 30 years, and they were all grateful to me for putting them together. I went to the new National Theater for a performance, visited the other tourist spots in my way, went to my other school where I taught, the Foreign Language Institute in the University district, met other people there, (but none of my former colleagues there, unfortunately) walked, and took lots of pictures which I will post when I have a chance. I ate lots of street food and had a number of other interesting adventures, which maybe I'll write about later - or save for my fiction...
It’s Friday May 12 and I am in Siberia. Crossing the border was interesting last night. About three Russians came on board the train, a big, crew cut tough looking young man said “Please exit compartment.” He came in and popped open the ceiling tiles. Each car has a porter who has a small compartment on the end, but right now, (Since Ulan Baatar) I have been the only passenger on the this car. So me and the Chinese porter have become friends. Anyway as the tough looking Russians came in, the porter said Ni hao - “Nee How” - hello - The Russian answered “Nee Who” and laughed. So I guess I am in the West now - sort of…
Anyway a woman came in and for the first time didn’t take my passport away to study for 20 minutes, but stood right there with some little Star Trek Tricorder looking device, scanned the passport, asked me, “Tourist?” “Yes.” She looked at me closely, then at my passport picture. Handed me my passport. I said “spa-see-ba” thank you and smiled. My first Russian conversation! Its 5:30 am. They changed the car configuration last night, so the dining car is now four cars back instead of just one. They jacked up the cars to put in the narrow gauge wheels for the Russian Railroad. (The Russians use a different gauge rail to slow down the Germans when they invade.) The Mongolian crew headed back across the desert, and the beautiful up country - flowing streams, excellent grazing land, colorful houses - a place where you almost envy the people who live there in the same way you envy prosperous ranchers - except the ranch houses were little, and there were no pickup trucks around, and the horses were smaller.
That is all behind me now. The internet works now! I have google and Facebook again. Yuk. Oh well, have to face the music some day. I was hoping the impeachment would be well on its way by now.
Coming into Ulan Ude, a pretty big town on a winding river surrounded by beautiful hills, spoiled by several horrible polluting factories that I can smell from inside the car. The sun is up, it is after 6 am. The Chinese porter says that now that we are in Russia, the dining car won’t open until at least 8 am, maybe not until 9 am. We are in Russia, he says, they are still sleeping. I look out into the back yards of the wooden Siberian shacks along the tracks and I see no activity of people stirring. One or two men walking around, in a seeming daze. OK, let's not draw any conclusions just yet...
In the dining car - I forgot to change my Chinese money to Rubles - I am hungry. They accept American dollar so I will break a fifty and hope for some change - eggs, coffee and bread. Grenkee - toast. Whole other world here. The Chinese porter warned me.
The land is familiar though. More trees.
Iruktsk is about the size of Portland. It is a river town, and is growing slowly. First day I walked back to the Train Station across the river from the main part of town and bought a ticket to Omsk for Tuesday. I met some Chinese people in line and they helped me out with the purchase as my Russian is still not strong enough to trust myself with things like buying a non-refundable train ticket. I do trust my Chinese however and I became WeChat friends with my translators.
Stopped in several smart looking businesses run by young people who speak good English and were fun and interesting to talk to.
I spent about two hours on the train riding passed Lake Baikal and it is everything it is made out to be. Big, deep, largest freshwater body of water, by volume, in the world. One of the young Russians said to come back and spend a week camping about three hours from Irkutsk to the north. But the 3-hour tours from the city were not interesting, there was nothing special to see. So I am skipping the tour and do plan to come back and camp. This is such a big big country.
Anyway I am sitting in a friendly coffee shop now. My three days here have been spent walking around the town, listening to my Michel Thomas Russian Language lessons on my phone, then stopping people on the street or in the shops to try out phrases and words. It is working! I am slowing beginning to understand and make myself understood. A long long way from fluent, but I don’t care. Next stop Omsk, where Dostoyevki was exiled. Maybe I’ll find him sitting on a park bench somewhere and I can try out some more phrases. I am loving this whole deal.