Hello, gentle readers! Wake up, it’s Monday! Rise and shine!
Miss Expatria would like to introduce to you a new feature of the blog – Monday Morning Coffee Stories. There’s no use in rushing into the business of the day, is there?
Every Monday, a delightful, entertaining story based on a travel experience will appear in this space. Transport yourself away from your desk, and come fly with Miss Expatria to the four corners of the world!
We’re kicking off this new feature with a Miss Expatria fan near and dear to our hearts – Mike Hamilton. Mike is a pilot with United Airlines – and he literally has seen it all. Today, he tells us about a morning he spent in Beijing.
Join us, won’t you?
Four AM in Beijing is 3PM in Chicago. This is the unfortunate reality I had to cope with one early spring morning.
It was my first trip to China, and it was apparent there was no way I was going to get back to sleep. I couldn’t have been more awake and, seeing as how I didn’t have to leave until three that afternoon, I figured I should make the most of the morning and do a little exploring – after all, I did fly halfway around the world. It would be a shame if all I saw in China were the cricket match highlights on Sky Sports.
So, after a quick shower I ventured into the hall and gave a light knock on the other pilots’ rooms to see if anyone was up for an early sightseeing tour. Unfortunately there were no takers; they were all either asleep or choosing to ignore the knock on the door. For fear of a sexual harassment charge, I didn’t even attempt to see if any of the flight attendants were awake.
I got down to the lobby and found the bleary-eyed concierge. I asked what there is to do in Beijing early in the morning. He paused and said that I should check out the flag raising in Tiananmen Square at dawn. It sounded interesting, so I jumped into a cab with my pointy-talkie sheet and showed the driver Tiananmen Square. He gave me a nod and off we went.
About halfway there I began to rethink this little jaunt, as I cruised down the mostly empty streets of a pre-dawn Beijing in a subcompact cab that smelled like fish and diesel. Venturing out by myself in a country that I have never been to without any hope of being able to decipher the language, before the sun was up, probably wasn’t the most travel-savvy decision I have ever made. I kept going though; in for a penny and all – plus, I had already paid the driver and I wasn’t about to try and negotiate a refund. I figured some people are just meant to be a warning to others and, in this case, it might as well be me. I could imagine them telling the story for years to come to crews going through training, about the idiot pilot who never returned from his pre-dawn walkabout. Hell, they might actually name the course after me.
The cabbie dropped me off at the northwest corner of the square. They block the street that runs in front of the Tiananmen Gate before dawn. The first thing that struck me was the crispness and clarity of the air. For those of you who haven’t been to Beijing, the first thing you will notice is the fog of pollution that lingers in the air on most days. It is a kind of brown malaise that just sits there unless there is a breeze blowing. This morning the stars were sharp and the air had a crisp, spring zip to it.
The second thing that struck me was the amount of people milling about in the pre-dawn darkness. I was relieved that it wasn’t just a bunch of homeless people and me, like you would normally find in most big cities. There were a number of tour groups, walking in shadowed packs behind enthusiastic tour guides carrying poles with pennants of different shapes and sizes.
I looked for a tour group I might be able to blend in with, but it seemed that most of the groups were school children or Asian. A six-foot tall American might stand out a little. In fact, it was still dark enough that I don’t think anyone noticed the solo American stumbling around trying to not stand out.
I noticed the people were all heading to a roped-off section of the square, so I walked over and stood on the periphery of the accumulating throng. I was amazed at the number of people filling in around me. There had to be thousands of people. Fortunately I had a bit of a height advantage, so I had a clear view of the Tiananmen Gate and flagpole that was now becoming visible and silhouetted against the now-brightening horizon.
For such a large group, it was very quiet. When the Military Honor Guard came marching out of the Gate, replete with rifles and a huge folded flag, I can still remember the echo of their boots at the gate and then the sharp sound of their heels striking the ground as they crossed the street to the flagpole.
They took their places around the pole, all standing at rigid attention, waiting for the precise moment for the flag to be lifted to its proper place. Then, just as the sun began to crest the horizon, the Chinese National Anthem, “March of the Volunteers” began and the flag was expertly lifted and unfurled to the top of the pole.
Once the anthem ended, the soldiers quickly went into their formation and marched back through the gate. The street opened to traffic and it seemed like every bike in Beijing filled the street in a matter of moments. The square immediately transformed from an atmosphere of quiet reverence to the hustle and bustle of tourists and people on their way to work. There also were a number of brightly colored kites in the air, and groups started to snap pictures to remember the moment.
It was just about then that people around me started to notice the lone white guy standing amid the masses. Next thing I knew, I was posing with one family after another in front of the People’s Heroes Monument, Great Hall of the People and the tomb of Mao Zedong.
The people were all very friendly and some seemed excited to be meeting a Westerner. I did have the chance to talk to a local that spoke English, and he explained that many of these people were in from the countryside for their chance to see the capitol. Many of them had never met a Westerner in person, and it was a bit of a novelty. I still wonder how many family albums feature me with a goofy smile.
The square itself is a perfect representation of the dichotomy that is China. This all occurred a few months before China was awarded the Olympics; I had the feeling everywhere I went that they really wanted to share their culture with the world at large.
There were three girls about the age of ten that wanted to practice their English with me; there were the mostly-toothless farmer and his wife standing on either side of me while someone took our picture with a camera right out of the ‘60s; there were hundreds of people flying kites and all the while, along the sidewalks around the square, military units from the barracks in the neighborhoods around the square did their morning drills. It was a fun atmosphere – with the understanding that as long as no one got out of line, it would be OK.
Happiness with restraint.
I spent a few hours wandering the square before the gates to the Forbidden City opened to the public. Everything there is of immense proportion: the monuments, flower displays and buildings all are larger than life. The whole experience is something I would highly recommend to anyone spending some time in Beijing. You can easily see the flag raising, get some coffee, check out the traditional and modern architecture, look around the neighborhoods surrounding the Forbidden City and spend a few hours poking around the awe inspiring City itself.
Make sure you also make time to go to the Buddhist temple on top of Jingshan Park. It is a magnificent view of the Forbidden City and once was accessible only to the royal family through the Gate of Divine Might from the palace grounds. You can walk along the moat that surrounds the palace from the Tiananmen Gate to the park itself.
The park is a peaceful, wooded oasis in the middle of the city. There are usually older men using big, mop-like pens writing Chinese script on the limestone with water. The script is beautiful and slowly fades away as the water evaporates. There are families walking along the park paths, and the temple at the crest of the hill is crowded – but reverently quiet. The view from the top of the hill is spectacular and gives you a nice panoramic view of all of Beijing. The amazing thing is the entire hill is constructed from the excavated earth that was dug up in making the moat around the palace. Everything associated with the palace and square is on a scale that boggles the mind.