My Tienanmen Square experience

The current media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre has brought back some memories for me. I walked around Tienanmen Square one month after this event.

No, I do not go around looking for trouble. The trip that took me through Beijing was part of a trip that had been planned for a long time. I had been living in Oslo, Norway for three years, and wanted to return to Vancouver by traveling by rail from Oslo to Stockholm, by ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, by rail from Helsinki to Hong Kong, then flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver. I had already booked and paid for most of this trip through a travel agency in Stockholm a month or two before the massacre happened. This agency had canceled some trips scheduled for June, my my trip was still on. At that time, visas for travel in the Soviet Union were very specific; the dates of each visit to each city, and the hotel that you stayed in, were spelled out in the visa, and it was impossible to change anything. And yes, there were agents of Intourist who checked on you to make sure you stuck to the schedule.

 My trip across what, at the time, was the Soviet Union, went well. I made stops in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), Moscow, and Lake Baikal, before crossing into China at Zabaikalsk. There's another border crossing formality there, in addition to the usual passport and visa checking. Train tracks in China are a different gauge than the ones in Russia (that's another story, and an interesting one), so all of the passenger cars are lifted with a crane, and transferred to a different undercarriage with the narrower set of wheels. (The railroad term is “bogie”.)

When this operation was completed, they connected a Chinese locomotive and dining car to the train. I headed straight for that dining car, and ordered a meal. When I finished it, I asked the waiter to bring me another one. After two weeks in the Soviet Union, Chinese food tasted really good. The food on the Russian part of the Trans-Siberian was especially bad, and, although a lot has changed in Russia during the past 25 years, I've heard that the dining cars on the Trans-Siberian are still run by the same people.

The train went through Harbin, in Manchuria. If you want a preview of what Hell looks like, that's a good place to get it. Somewhere between Harbin and Beijing, the train was approaching a station, and there was a big mob of people there. I thought, “oh, no, an uprising has started, and I'm going into the middle of it.” It turned out that a group of young people from that town had gone to East Germany to work for a year, and were returning home on the same train I was on. The big mob of people was just the “welcome home” committee.

When I arrived in Beijing in the morning, I got a surprise. Someone involved in making my travel arrangements had mis-read the train schedule, and I arrived in Beijing a day later than I was supposed to.1 This was a minor problem, because my train from Beijing to Guangzhou (Canton) was leaving that night. And, since trains in China run full all the time, there was no possibility of changing this.

Because of events of the past month, I didn't have any big problem with staying in Beijing for only a few hours. My immediate need, however, was to get a hotel room, even though I wasn't spending the night. I needed to take a shower and get some rest. A tout at the train station directed my to a hotel. It turned out that the historic picture of the man standing in front of the tanks was taken right in front of this hotel.

When I was rested up enough go out and explore Beijing a bit, I went to the Forbidden City. I got there a few minutes after 3:30 PM, when it closed for the day. Again, a minor problem, because you can see quite a bit of it from the outside. However, Tienanmen Square is right next to the Forbidden City, so after I had followed the Forbidden City wall part of the way around, there were big nasty-looking soldiers preventing anyone from entering Tienanmen Square. The square was closed because they hadn't finished cleaning up the blood and other damage from the massacre. (And don't forget that, according to the Chinese government, “nothing happened at Tienanmen Square.”)

I eventually found a good restaurant for dinner, headed back to the hotel (I was traveling on bicycle taxis), then to the train station, and caught the train to Guangzhou with no problem.

Something else noteworthy that saw in Beijing was cargo bicycles. Lots of them. I saw one with a pig on the front, and a pig on the back. I don't know how the rider pulled this off, but I saw it with my own eyes.

So, I got in and out of Beijing unscathed. However, something terrible happened on the Beijing-Guangzhou train, and it was an example of the sort of thing that can happen when you're traveling in a culture very different from your own.

Chinese trains have “soft class”, which is four sleeping pallets to a compartment, and “hard class”, which can best be described as a human chicken coop. (Paul Theroux gives a good explanation of this in Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China.) I was in soft class, and the only problem with the first part of the trip was a very obnoxious American Yuppie that I was forced to share my compartment with. Well, there were big armed guards on this train, and they caught a woman who belonged in hard class using the washroom next door to my compartment. They dragged the woman out of the washroom, and proceeded beat the crap out of her. There was nothing that I or anyone else in the vicinity could do about it, other than watch in horror.

When I got to Guangzhou, it was a short train ride from there to Hong Kong. It felt good to be “back in civilization” again. I rode the Star Ferry, made a day trip to Macau (which I liked a lot), and bought a counterfeit Rolex that I wore for several years.

I would like to give the Trans-Siberian another try, but next time, I'll take it to Vladivostok. This option wasn't available in 1989; Vladivostok was closed to foreigners then.

1Here's the full explanation. The Trans-Siberian has two routes between Moscow and Beijing, the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian. The train that took me out of Moscow was Trans-Mongolian. However, I got off that train in Irkutsk, to go to Lake Baikal. When I got on the train again a couple of days later, it was a Trans-Manchurian, and it takes the Trans-Manchurian a day longer to make the trip.


0 #1 Doyle Phillips 2014-06-06 14:37
Enjoyed reading the personal, informative account, Roberto.

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