Beijing and beyond
â€œJust leap,â€ yelled Robert, already in mid-air. I looked aghast at the beast roaring down on us. Somewhere underneath the moving, rippling blanket of people rolled a bus. It slowed enough for 50 people to jump off and 60 more to throw themselves on, most clinging to the sides.
Welcome to Beijing, capital of China, circa 1990. Eighteen years ago, Beijing had a single pace: mad. But it worked. Buses and bicycles twisted and turned, around and beside each other in what appeared to be a crazy, unregulated mess that, if you looked long enough, revealed a pattern like the four rivers whose currents converge yet flow in organic patterns.
Walking the streets lined with concrete, communist-inspired box-like buildings, I felt a certain harmony in the madness and saw in the cyclistsâ€™ faces a trust and confidence that everything would just work out: that each oncoming wave of bikes would leave a width of 10 inches for pedalling through, that the bus would slow down enough to leap aboard or that the pedestrian would not be standing in your way. I never witnessed an accident.
I had just arrived in Beijing, I was in my early 20s and anything seemed possible. I wouldnâ€™t want to be that insecure age again, and I now know, especially after that trip, that freedom has many layers and is truly a state of mind. But that sense of possibility, that happy desire to jump into any crazy scheme … now, that is good to remember.
Traversing China seemed possible when the letter came to my backpackersâ€™ hostel in a rabbit-warren building in Hong Kong. I was illegally working three jobs to fund the next part of my world trip: serving drinks in a bar, working as an extra in kung fu movies â€” popular at the time â€” and playing a Sesame Street character at childrenâ€™s parties.
Such glorious pursuits did my life hold when I opened the letter from Robert and Michelle to learn that these two friends had cycled across Europe and were on their way to Beijing. â€œCome and travel through China with us,â€ they said. I looked around the tiny dormitory I shared with 16 other backpackers and their dirty socks, considered where my showbiz career was heading and replied straight away.
Although people travelling to Beijing in 1990 usually arrived with a tour group and independent travellers were discouraged, I felt adventurous and excited when, miraculously, I received all the relevant paperwork and boarded a plane for China.
We enjoyed a few of the main sights: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. Each night we stayed in a concrete three-storey building where the iron beds and sterile decor helped to get us up in the morning and out the door. A delightful old lady at a streetside stall served us banana pancakes for breakfast â€” I can still taste them â€” and the best food a cheap winter in Beijing dished up for us.
For my first dinner, taken at an outdoor cafe where I sat at a communal wooden table, I picked up my chopsticks to tuck into a bowl of noodles, when I noticed that everyone at the table had frozen still. I looked around expecting to see green-suited communist guards bearing down on us, but the long line of Chinese were all staring at me.
My neighbour put down his chopsticks. With deliberate movements, he readjusted my fingers until I held the chopsticks just right. At that moment the entire table, as one, resumed eating and slurping as if nothing had happened. For a moment in time, I had disturbed the tao of the table and nothing could occur until all was in harmony again.
Being a tourist
Climbing 1000 steps up the rather astonishing Great Wall, built to keep the northern barbarians off the emperorâ€™s turf, the formidable rise of stone felt impenetrable. But instead of one long solid line of stone, itâ€™s actually a series of sections and the barbarian in my mind imagined just swinging my pony off to one side and riding until I found the end of that section of the wall and trotted into China. Which is what the hordes probably did.
However, the long, undulating lines of stone snaking along the stark barren mountain ridges were still impressive, if somewhat blood-soaked, for it took a lot of people to build it and some did not survive the brutal elements, cruel treatment and back-breaking work. But here it is, still one of the great wonders of the world.
Visiting the Forbidden City in one day revealed only a few of the maze of 9000 rooms contained in an overwhelming 800 buildings surrounded by courtyards and walkways. The largest and grandest of the buildings at the front of the complex were for the emperor, while the royal family and concubines lived in a string of palaces around the back.
Many cultural symbols were used in the buildings and landscaping, including the colours yellow and red colours to represent earth and fire, while the laws of yin and yang required odd numbers of steps and bridges (yang) and the decorations of the living quarters to be â€œdelicateâ€ (yin).
Royalty spent the warmer months in the lovely Summer Palace, then located in the countryside to the west of Beijing but now, thanks to urban expansion, on the cityâ€™s edge. The lucky nobles enjoyed beautifully landscaped gardens sprinkled with gracious buildings, boats and a picturesque 17-arch bridge. Covering 290 hectares, itâ€™s the worldâ€™s largest imperial garden and was created using the four elements of traditional Chinese garden design: rock, water, architecture and plants.
Tiananmen Square had a rather poignant atmosphere, our visit being so soon after the student uprising that saw so much brutal suppression. For a country that has given so much to civilisation â€” the magnetic compass, kites, umbrellas, silk, firecrackers, the abacus, papermaking and, of course, Chinese medicine â€” the treatment of its own people and neighbours has, for centuries, been questionable.
On the move
We took a third-class train to Shanghai with the idea of buying bicycles and cycling the rest of the way to Hong Kong. The carriage was bursting to its rafters, so I found a seat and shared it with two others. Passengers squeezed together on seats and another layer stood up against the walls, while a third found room on the floor.
Passengers shouted over the loudspeakers, chain-smoked cigarettes, fired up little stoves and cooked and slurped noodles. Someone offered me food, but I declined. I had looked at the toilets on the way in and couldnâ€™t see anywhere I would be able to sit among the layers of … er, letâ€™s just leave it at â€œlayersâ€.
And so onwards we rocked cheerfully together for 16 hours under a cloud of smoke, wreathed in cooking smells and accompanied by a constant cacophony of loudspeaker, shouting, cooking, coughing, sneezing, slurping and spitting.
Shanghai was a revelation. Nothing like the rest of the country, it held a vibrant, eclectic energy accumulated from long being a port to the outside world. The West had intruded and been absorbed, most notably at the Bund, a long line of substantial European-style buildings. We found solid, black, Russian-made bicycles in a large department store and hauled them onto a boat bound for Wuhan, a city in Central China and the starting point of our cycle to Canton (now Guangzhou).
Our third-class â€œbedsâ€ on the Yangtze river boat consisted of a threadbare straw mat that fitted snugly under the top half of my body, keeping 0.1 per cent of my body off the grotty floor. The only difference from the train trip was the ability to open windows to let out the smoke. I loved backpacking.
Reaching Wuhan four days later, we set off in high spirits with my pack precariously slung over the back of the bike. Hereâ€™s where the happy threesome came to strife, for the other two were on their way towards home and I was on my way away from home. They cycled fast, like horses returning to stables, and I travelled slowly, first from lack of fitness, then enjoying a slower type of travel, in constant wonder at this strange land. I stopped to gaze at the jagged contours of mountains, watched the age-old tradition of ploughing the land with water buffaloes, smiled as another village revealed itself around a corner and nodded to old men sitting at wooden benches.
Solo white female
After a few days, we realised only frustration and resentment would be the outcome of further travel together, so we sadly hugged farewell and I watched them pedal off. The next 48 hours were very lonely and difficult. No one spoke English. I had only a vague idea where I was and felt fearfully alone, though the peace of the countryside and the curiosity of the people soon settled me.
I came to enjoy the alone time: the challenge of finding accommodation â€” usually a spare room in someoneâ€™s house â€” and eating the local food and the intrigue of cultural differences. It was because I was alone that I ignored a long line of signs prohibiting entry to â€œPingle Countyâ€. Curious and feeling just an insignificant speck in this vast country, I cycled happily on, believing I would not be noticed.
In Pingleâ€™s first town, the female foreigner on the bicycle created a street jam that didnâ€™t clear until the local constabulary arrived. The police appeared unsure what to do with me and the conversations around me rose to shouting levels. I was taken to the police station, a small room open to the main street, which meant the ensuing interview â€” by a nervous young man who spoke halting English â€” was viewed by a massive crowd. This only angered the police further, so I pleaded ignorance and prepared myself for a jail sentence.
Instead, I was escorted out of the townâ€™s boundaries by the entire police staff and a government official. They brought chairs, set them up in careful rows by the side of the road and dispatched a boy to bring sugar cane. Now relaxed and smiling, they showed me how to break the cane to make the juice flow and we sucked (dreadful stuff) until a truck arrived to bear me and my bike away. Waving cheerfully, I left Pingle County never having discovered why it was prohibited to foreigners.
One day, needing to relieve myself and knowing the word for toilet quite well by then, I asked at a village cafe. The woman nodded and took me out to their backyard, where I looked for a dunny-type outhouse but could only see a vegetable garden and a pig pen. The woman became confused when I didnâ€™t trot off to do my business and after a moment of us both standing in the rain and mud, she moved towards the large pig pen, motioning me to follow.
She gestured into the pen and headed back inside while I swallowed hard, then gingerly picked my way into the pigpen and, there among the large, grunting and snuffling pigs, who took no notice of me, I squatted in the layers of pungent mud. Reflecting afterwards, I understood. Itâ€™s a perfect system: no water, no waste, no toilet paper. This is recycling at its most efficient. But I swore not to touch pork again while in the country.
A few days later, I experienced one of lifeâ€™s defining events. While I cycled through a town where, in the usual fashion, the live ingredients of restaurant meals were displayed in cages outside the entrance, I spied a beautiful bird of prey. It was all liquid black eyes and proud head, silky mottled feathers and a gaze that seared me to the bone. I wheeled around and negotiated its sale ($10 â€” a princely sum in those parts).
Untying the falcon from the top of a pile of cages, I re-tied it to the front of my handlebars. In this strange fashion, we pedalled down the road and out of the village under the astonished stares of several hundred locals. Something in me bubbled to the top and flowed over in an avalanche of emotion. A long-held dream surfaced, centred on birds of prey and their fierce pride and ability to soar and be lords of the skies. For my entire life, they had represented freedom, a strength of spirit and fire that I craved. So here it was, on my handlebars, the symbol of the most coveted attribute in my life, and I had it. I had it!
I sped along in an endorphin-charged run. Nothing could hold me down now. I was free. I was strong. I was proud. Wild visions of smuggling the bird through Hong Kong and then home to Australia ran through my mind. I had found Freedom and I was going to take it back to be a part of my life. Oh glorious day! Oh greatest of all times in my life. Oh … oh … oh!
The bird balanced precariously on the handlebars until, as I cycled over a large bump in the road, it fell into the basket attached to the front of my bike. I stopped in surprise and picked up the bird and put it back on the bars. It kept happening as the falcon tired and rain began to fall. Once so proud, it lay there, looking sadly up at me. â€œNo, get up,â€ I urged it. â€œYou are a lord. You are free. You are powerful. You are … not free, are you?â€
The rain turned to sheets of water that furthered the birdâ€™s misery and washed away my visions. Reality set in. I couldnâ€™t keep it. It wasnâ€™t free and I wasnâ€™t free. Just owning a symbol of freedom didnâ€™t mean I became the same. This wasnâ€™t the way forward. This wasnâ€™t the answer. I stopped by the side of the road, tears washed by the rain, and untied the bird. It balanced on my wrist. I closed my eyes and swung my arm into the air. I felt the weight of the bird lift and opened my eyes to see it swooping off towards nearby mountains.
A passer-by started to chase after it and I sent a wish that the falcon would keep flying. Now there was nothing but me standing in the rain with my sodden bike and annoying bag. I flagged a lift and sat in the back of a small truck, hugging my bag and crying in grief, confusion, shattered dreams and realisation.
Dropped off in a small town, I knocked on a door and asked about a B&B. The woman shook her head, then stared at me: stringy hair plastered to my face, eyes red and swollen, wearing travel-stained clothes. Unexpectedly, she motioned me to take my bike around the back and come inside. The house was one large room with a central fire used for cooking, heating water and warmth.
That night, after sharing their rice, the husband, wife and children disappeared through a doorway and the extended family and visitors, including me, lay on the floor near the fire. I couldnâ€™t sleep. I was feeling disoriented and empty. I realised freedom was not going to come from outside of myself. I had grasped one of my great dreams and it had not changed what or who I was. Letting go of it had, however, for I began to wonder how I could feel freer and happier without an outside source.
This eventually led me to the meditation halls of Thailand and Nepal and I am forever grateful to that bird and hope it found its own freedom in the southern mountains of an intriguing, beautiful and enigmatic country. Robert had rightly introduced me to Beijing by saying, â€œLeap!â€