The story from Beijing continues with a letter home and the Summer Palace. We days in the Chinese capital were coming to an end.
This article is part of a diary based travelogue from a six month journey in 1985 to several countries in East and South East Asia: Japan, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Read the first article from Beijing.
Letter to my family
Beijing 19. March 1985
Here I am again with a letter. I hope you received the postcard I sent a few days ago. A card is however too small to really account for what I have experienced. That is in fact the reason why I’m sending letters and with a bit larger intervals. I do believe that a little card every day just to tell you that I’m alive is less interesting than a letter in larger intervals and with more information.
Besides I’m sorry I haven’t mentioned that I received two letters before I left Hong Kong, and that both two letters here in Beijing are safe and well. Thank you very well. It is always nice to read about what is going on at home. (Congratulations on a new car, but couldn’t you give some more information as to what kind of Mazda it is, etc.)
I also thank you for the flags in the letter to Hong Kong. But fact is that I bought a textile flag on the airport, the day I left home, and have been walking around with it, fixed to the upper right arm of my jacket ever since. And I feel that more flags will become a bit too much. But I will keep them and see what use I can make of them.
Another thing I have forgotten to mention is that I shipped a package from Taiwan with boat. That may take its time, but you are hereby “warned”. Furthermore, it says nineteenth of March on top of the page and I will probably not be getting to Hong Kong for another week, at least. That means about six weeks in China. What I’m getting to is that my original plans are seriously postponed – up to 1.5 months – and I doubt very much that I will return home by the start of the summer vacations. I have therefore decided not to apply for work at Esso or other places. A summer job is a question I will consider when I get home and that time is too uncertain to be planned or tied to now. That’s it.
I am by the way astonished by your eagerness to make me submit newspaper articles, and even books. That is a bit too much of it, mother! Of course I have enough experiences to choose between to write a few articles and with subjects that would intrigue the readers of our local newspaper, but I have not made myself sit down putting the necessary words together. Maybe later, maybe not. But by all means, don’t you start messing about with something. Otherwise I will have to censor my letters home.
Well, I guess it’s time to move on to tell you how I survived after sending the letter from Xining. (I think that was the place I mailed it to you.) (All these city names tell you of course nothing at all, but if you’re on fire with finding something to do, you have perhaps looked them up in a map. The way of typing the name may be different on the old maps. I actually plan to send a map with my route drawn on it when I get to Hong Kong. We’ll see.)
We (that is the two Danish girls plus the tailing Swiss guy – he sort of tailed behind us sucking the fruits of what we fixed, seeming totally helpless) went directly to Xian. That night it was lovely to get to bed. We had been travelling just about continuously for five days from Lhasa and it took its toll. I contracted a serious cold and still have remains of it.
But before we so comfortably fell into sleep the first night in Xian we had a (hell of a) problem getting a room. We contacted (phone and visits) three large hotel in the city and they all told us they were full. This was in the evening but no way that was true. This is actually a fairly common (or at least not rare) problem facing individual travellers in China. But it was the first time we had faced it. And this was not the right time to experience it. The usual tactic is to sit down in the lobby and pretend settling in for the night.
Then the staff usually reacts, it is actually bad for the reputation of the hotel when that happens. Miraculously and magically they find a room, serving all kinds of strange explanations of how a room all of a sudden has become vacant around eleven o’clock at night, and whisk us up to our room.
This is what basically happened to us as well. But in this story is the fact that Chinese receptionists are impolite, slow, unfamiliar with service, obviously uninterested in hotel guests they can make money from, and they are clearly fond of the power they have over foreigners. We waited 3-4 hours in an ice-cold giant hall of a lobby – not the best conditions for my cold.
I did by the way make a private inspection in various floors and found without getting surprised a free room with four beds on the fourth floor. The floor attendant was actually very nice, followed me down to the lobby and was loudly surprised to hear that there was no free room in the hotel. In despair she had to refer the lie to me, and even the receptionists felt embarrassed by what I had detected.
In any case, we were sent to bed with a message to be out by 0700 and never to return. We on the other hand intended to keep the room until we were certain of getting a place somewhere else. The next morning we rose late and made the reception call another hotel – still full. We ended up staying there, in constant fear of returning an afternoon finding our luggage thrown out.
It didn’t happen. We and the reception plainly overlooked each other, right until they capitulated and summoned us to informally register. That’s it. The room was by the way pretty good, another reason for staying there.
The city of Xian is not much. The streets, shops, life and the people are about the same as elsewhere in China. What was beckoning us to Xian, and indeed ever since I planned this trip back in Norway, are the terracotta soldiers which mother oddly enough mentioned in her letter.
Apart from the fact that Xian is not a few kilometres outside Beijing as you say, but several hundred, with a train journey of more than 21 hours, you obviously know so much of them that I’ll drop the introduction. They really were impressive to see, several hundred lined up and even more fully and partially unexcavated.
Outside there were lots of souvenir sellers I ignored. On the other hand I had run out of People’s money so I welcomed the black market people. I don’t recall if I have mentioned this, but exchanging on the black market is quite open in China, albeit illegal. And it really pays off for me and others. We have Tourist money which can be used to buy various goods the Chinese have problems getting otherwise.
They have People’s money. Both currencies are called Yuan, and the rate is officially the same, but with two different types of notes. In the bank I only get Tourist money, but I can use People’s money almost everywhere. When they offer 170 People’s money (RMB) for 100 Tourist money (FEC), it is obvious that my expenses can be cut a lot. Reprisals if I get caught are of a moderate character – a warning or the like.
After Xian I took the train, paid for with my People’s money and at a cheaper price than most tourists because of my fake student ID card from Taiwan. I bought it in Hong Kong for 5.5 USD and it has repaid itself many times. (It helps being devious.)
I got into Beijing and had a lot less of a problem getting a space in a dormitory.
In my postcards I have already written some of the things I have done: The Great Wall, eaten Peking duck in a very merry drinking party with some Chinese and the two Danish girls.
I have also seen the Great Hall of the People, which is huge and functions as China’s equivalent to the Norwegian Storting. I saw the corpse of Mao in his mausoleum. Both are situated on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Tiananmen Square, which is the largest square in the world.
Yesterday on Monday I spent most of the day browsing (Norwegian daily) Aftenposten and various news telexes from the Foreign ministry at the embassy. Unfortunately I wasn’t guided around the building. Strangely no one came up to me, and there was no one to be seen.
Later in the day I watched Chinese opera with a man from Bergen I met in my hotel: We left before it ended, as we found the music and song dreadful. But it is was an interesting and exciting experience nonetheless.
Today I have walked around in the Forbidden City, a gigantic complex from the beginning of the 1600’s. Here the Ming and Qing emperors lived with their courts and their mandarins and rarely or never moved outside the walls. Of course the area was sealed off for the man in the street. As you can imagine the material abundance of the emperors is well reflected in the buildings and treasures found here. Very impressive.
One of the few places the emperors left outside the walls was the Summer Palace some kilometres to the north. I am going there tomorrow. It is said to be top that palace as well, of course I might add.
For the moment I’m writing this letter in one of the bars of the large, expensive, impressive, classic, decadent, honourable, stylish and slightly “faded” Beijing Hotel. I’m waiting for the man from Bergen. We had well founded hopes of getting into an acrobatics show this evening.
The Chinese acrobats we know from television of course and it is not trifles they are up to so I’m really looking forward to it. The entrance fees to these places are by the way less than about 0.2 USD, so it is not really any expense. (In parenthesis: I have never been on a bus this much before, or stood so close before, as here in Beijing, but the price is only a cent, so what the h..?)
Tomorrow the man from Bergen goes home on the Trans-Siberian (railway) and I take the train to Shanghai (27 hours). On Sunday there is a three day boat trip to Hong Kong and I hope to be on it.
I’m starting to get tired of travelling in China now. It is of course very interesting, but at the same time very challenging. Other travellers have experienced the same as me after the period here, and it is said that China is one of the most difficult countries of all to travel in.
I’m now looking forward to getting to warmer areas and really relax on the beach and that kind of thing. Not that it is so cold here in Beijing, it actually looks as if spring is coming. Just before I arrived it was really cold, but the thermometer now shows temperatures well above zero.
Well family, the letter has now become long and I will have to finish. I hope you are all faring well.
Next letter: Hong Kong
Wednesday 20.3.1985, Beijing – Shanghai
I walked to the left along the river, over the bridge, up the road 200 metres, took bus #19 to the end stop at the Zoo. There I changed to 332 to the left at the Zoo to the end station.
There was the Summer Palace – one of the few places the emperors and their courts moved to outside the Forbidden City. And yet again they knew how to make life good for themselves. The same richly decorated buildings and temples. Even an artificial lake where the dignitaries could arrange naval battles – and they did. There was an artificial mount here too – incredible.
I went straight back to the hotel and had an excellent dinner with beer for 5Y.
The train left the station at 2108 and I was on it, and slept well that night.
The introduction to this journey to East and South East Asia.
Previous chapter: Beijing: The imperial city complete with ducks, opera, acrobats and the Forbidden City
Next chapter: Shanghai and the slow boat to Hong Kong