Monday, July 26, 2010

Adventures in China - part 2

If you are just joining the adventure I must warn you that this is the second part of a no doubt made for t.v. miniseries - so I must insist you first read part one before venturing to this next section.

Hopefully you took my advice and are now oh so thankful you did. Fantastic edge of your seat kind of reading huh?

This section of my story picks up at the end of the Summer Palace tour and on to our next destination: Tinanmen Square.
It was 1989 and in an Orwellian scene I will never forget, I watched the tanks roll toward the student protesters gathered in Tinanmen Square to peacefully protest their government's policies. I was profoundly moved by the courage of the students. Shortly after those initial images were broadcast across the world, all reporters were escorted out of Beijing and we were left to guess the fates of those gathered in that square that day.

Tinanmen Square is the largest city square in the world. Over 1 million people could easily assemble here - if such an assembly were legal - which it is not and I would suggest against it. Also no vehicles are allowed in Tinanmen Square - tanks are okay.

Here I am standing in Tinanmen Square and if you look closely you can see the gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong hanging, oddly enough, on the Gate of Heavenly Peace - just another weird juxtaposition you'll find if you visit.

Let's talk about the Chairman for just a bit. Mao emerged on the scene in 1949. He was nothing if not ambitious and set his sites on China's global domination. One of Mao's more bizarre ideas was to order the death of every sparrow in China. Since sparrows ate grain, and Mao was big on exporting grain, this must have seemed like a fail-safe plan. Unfortunately the sudden demise of the insignificant sparrow would have catastrophic results for China. Over the course of the next three years a famine unparalleled would strike China. The nation starved like no other nation before.

Mao is perhaps most famous for his Cultural Revolution during the sixties. This sounds like an innocuous title. The cultural revolution was a revolution against the "Four Olds" - old customs, old ideas, old habits and old culture. Mao and his posse encouraged bands of teenagers to carry out his mayhem throughout China. The youths were given free reign to kill and torture anyone suspected of having the four olds. Teachers were particularly targeted. In one month alone, over 2,000 people in the city of Beijing were killed and the sadist red guard youths not only killed their teachers but ate them - in the school cafeteria. Paintings, buildings and historical monuments were destroyed throughout China.Mao is believed to be responsible for the death of over 70 million people during his reign. Hitler and Stalin look like schoolyard bullies compared to the Chairman. And yet one of the most striking things about China is that Mao is everywhere. He is on every piece of money. His picture is revered all over the city. He is probably one of history's greatest villains who attempted to destroy his own culture and yet he is still honored across the country.

(Pictures of Mao for sale in Beijing market.)

Our group headed over to the Forbidden city, conveniently located directly across the street from Tinanmen Square.

Now - there is no way to appropriately capture the scope of this compound. This is the first courtyard - there are several (not sure how many) others exactly the same. This is important information later. Remember this. In order to get to this first courtyard we walked a good ten minutes journey from the entrance. It really is a vast city.

I found the details around the city so beautiful. I had to document them.

I made my way up the stairs and got in line to view inside the palace. Personal space, a wholly unfamiliar concept in China, is one of those luxuries I quickly learned I would need to shed here. The queue is also an endangered species in this country. I thought this was isolated to waiting for transportation. But it is not. Waiting in line should be considered a contact sport in China. I was elbowed, stepped on, and muscled around all by four foot two Chinese grandmothers. I lost my waterbottle and was shoved out of position. I was not deterred, however. I decided to adopt the new country's standards and flung my elbows and shoulders out and somehow managed to move forward, although I was bypassed for awhile by some dozens of people in the melee. Lining up in China is not for the faint of heart. I managed to get to the front and snapped a very unremarkable picture of the inside of the emperor's home.

It's not really worth a mention - but after what I'd been through to get the picture - you better believe I'm posting it.

There are many side rooms throughout the Forbidden City. The Hall of Military Prowess was one of my favorite. I also thought the name was impressive.

It was approaching the time I was to gather up with my group. In the jostle to view the Emperor's throne I lost the others from my group. No worries because I knew we would all be meeting up soon.

I began walking to the meeting spot. Earlier, our local guide had pointed to an area up ahead on the left as our point of assembly. I reached the spot he pointed to but no one from my group had arrived yet. No problem, I thought. I like to be a few minutes early - and I was so I decided to wait. After about 10 minutes I began to get concerned. No one from my group was anywhere around. This was not a good sign. I decided to walk back across the courtyard and stand over near our point of entry. After standing there for several minutes I again walked back across the courtyard to the place I thought our guide had pointed to. I did this five times. Here is a picture of the courtyard:
I also neglected to mention that the heat in July in Beijing is like nothing I've ever experienced in my life - and as a kid I used to spend entire summers in Phoenix. Jim and I once traveled to Georgia to be in a wedding in August - that didn't even come close to what it was like in China.

I waited for an hour at the exit for my group. It is a remarkable thing to be completely lost in China. I would not recommend it.

When I first realized I was lost, I was mortified. How could I, a responsible teacher, learning to lead groups of students in foreign countries become lost? I was also feeling so awful for my group. I didn't want to be responsible for messing up anyone's plans or for worry on the part of my group. That was my concern the first 45 min. After that, I started to become a mite worried. By hour 3 I was pretty sure I would be sleeping out on the streets in Beijing.

After waiting for over an hour at the exit, I decided to try and walk out to the very front of the complex to see if I could think of what to do next. Oh, I should point out that I tried to talk to a security guard but they spoke no English, and I only learned a few phrases, like "thank you" in Mandarin or "Excuse me. I am not proficient in squatting, is there another toilet option?"so it was not a helpful exchange.

As I walked I considered my options. My phones (I brought two, just to be safe) would not call out. I did, thank the Lord in heaven, happen to pick up a hotel card the night before. I figured I might stand a chance of catching a taxi.

I stood under the gigantic picture of Mao. I reasoned if I were lost in New York it would make sense to make my way to a national landmark - like the Empire State Building - and wait. And I recently watched Sleepless in Seattle. I figured the picture of Mao was probably as nationalistic as you could get - maybe someone would follow my logic and find me. I was also positioned directly across from Tinanmen Square and at the entrance to the Forbidden City. While waiting I snapped this photo of China's red guards (don't know if they're still called this) marching and I was again reminded that teachers have not faired well in China in the past.

While I waited at the entrance I searched every face that passed by, hoping to see someone familiar. I was approached by a smiling Chinese man who asked in broken English if I needed something. Oh joy! Someone who shared my mother tongue! Relief poured over me and I felt a kindred affection for this kind man.

"I'm lost." I began. "I was with my group and I can't find them - we got separated, and it's been over 3 hours and I don't know what to do next. My phones won't work - stupid Verizon - and I am thinking of trying to hail a taxi but I haven't seen a single one pass by and..."

"So sorry." he interrupted. "We take picture."

I stared at him blankly for awhile. "You don't understand me?"

"Take picture?"

"No problem." I said. I mean it wasn't as if I was going anywhere.

Just then, when I thought things couldn't get any weirder, he turned to me and said,

"Thank you for visiting China."

Sure. My pleasure. Glad to do what I can.

I continued to wait with Mao for my group.

Another group of Chinese people approached me wanting a photo with the lost American. The same phrase of thanks was offered after the photo shoot.

I tried to imagine myself thanking people for visiting Wenatchee.

I decided Mao was not going to be able to assist me. I once again trudged back to the Forbidden City courtyard.

After waiting inside the courtyard by the exit, I was approached by a vendor. Vendors are everywhere. He tried to sell me a book about the Forbidden city. I declined. I was feeling a bit anxious and didn't really want a souvenir reminder of my horrific day. I also figured I might need to hang on to my money in case I never made it out of Beijing.

I must have been an oddity to him, because he came back to talk to me several minutes later. I quickly realized he had a good grasp of English. I told him my story as succinctly as possible. I showed him my hotel card and explained I needed to get back and could he help me find a taxi. There were no taxis near our area.

Then, what happened next was truly the kindness of God. The Chinese vendor got out his cell phone and let me use it - he even dialed the hotel for me. He spoke to someone at the hotel in Chinese and explained what happened to me. I got on the phone and left a message for the Ef people I was traveling with and I handed the phone to my new friend. I was patched through to my local guide who I was never so happy to hear from. He talked to my rescuer for a long time. I had no idea what they were saying. My Chinese angel hung up the phone and motioned for me to get on the back of his motorbike.

So I rode on the back of some Chinese stranger's motorcycle, weaving in and out of the Forbidden City and down back alleys. No helmets, mind you. No real seat to speak of either. The ride was thrilling. We passed a moat of some type and traveled on for a good 10 minutes.

I contemplated my bizarre situation. I can honestly say there is no circumstance I can think of in which I would jump on the back of a stranger's motorcycle in America. I also briefly considered the possibility that the man driving the bike was part of an international human smuggling ring and might hold me for ransom.

To my great relief, and I cannot stress this enough, I noticed two of my EF guides working their way over to our motorbike.

I thanked my Chinese friend and paid him some money for his kindness and his time and then I did the weirdest thing. I guess the Chinese greeting of thanks was still banging around in my head, because I heard myself say,

"America thanks you."


I blame it on the stress and heat rash.


  1. Oh my goodness, Lori, you have adventures equal only Bilbo and Frodo!!! I would have fainted straight away from fright. Well done, and praise God! What a summer you've had! America thanks you for representing us well. I'm reading a book about all of this right now called Wild Swans. Can't wait to catch up with you in person soon!

  2. And I wasn't being sarcastic, by the way..... I hope you know that! :) I love the whole story! And I LOVED your parting words to the angel who helped you! ...You are a gracious and kind lady! And I KNOW that you DID represent us well. I'm proud of you taking such a journey!! Can't wait to hear all about it!

  3. Wow, what an adventure. Gotta love those travel angels :-)
    <3 Y.L.

  4. What a great experience. Part 2 is a bit harrowing, but you did great. My experience in asia has been that locals recognize how distraught tourists can get, and often are very helpful.

  5. Fun reading about your adventure in China... and the squatty potties and the ride on the motor bike with a complete stranger. I'm not sure what led you there, but I know you'll have a lifetime of memories and lessons to unfold because of it.

    I don't think I could abide the heat, much less the free flowing mucus and urine. Have mercy...