As I near the border town of Erlian on the northwest edge of China, dusk gives way to complete darkness and a scattering of snow dusting the arid ground is just visible. The train continues to eat up each kilometre at a smooth and steady pace, lulling everyone into a slower rhythm.
I’m relieved to leave Beijing. Not necessarily because I had an unwelcome experience (these things happen and are all part and parcel of travelling) but primarily because I was unable to learn about this fascinating place while I was within its grasp.
Tourists were herded like cattle through the Forbidden City. I had to suppress my urge to dodge left or right, to go against the grain of the thousands of human beings being led from one information plaque to another. I was told the date of construction, which nobility lived in the building and its total floor area in meters squared. This information was cut and pasted throughout, with varied numbers and dates being inserted as appropriate. Who attempted to bring down the ruling emperor? During which era was China most prosperous? What lives did the inhabitants lead? Where was the real history?
Standing in Tiananmen Square, I observed the bustling throngs of people taking photos of the surrounds. Colossal, bland buildings frame this famous site like soldiers themselves controlling the activity below. If they fail in their task there are enough CCTV cameras to catch any minor disturbance for miles around. The guards themselves seem to feign seriousness, marching every now and then for the benefit of tourists with ever-ready cameras. There’s nothing at Tiananmen that alludes to the recent and very real past. No hint of an explanation, small acknowledgement or memorial. Leaving, I felt as empty as the square itself.
My excitement at getting out of the city for a day was justified. The Great Wall section of Mutianyu was as picturesque as any postcards I had seen. Bright blue sky gave way to steep dry mountains that the wall slithered along towards the horizon. However, even this wonder of the ancient world, that took millions of men thousands of years to build, these days only hints at the truth. Sections are so enthusiastically restored that I felt myself leaning close to the stonework, trying to distinguish the modern-day from the ancient.
Unfortunately for a tourist in China, the barriers don’t end there. Having bought a VPN (connection to a remote internet server) before leaving Australia, I was able to access privileges that are withheld from the rest of the population. I had the freedom to Facebook and blog about my experiences. Most importantly, I could Google information on the sites I had visited. My fellow travellers were denied this simple luxury. “Tiananmen Square history” drew a blank; “Who made the Great Wall?” was unable to load; and “The Forbidden City” was, well, forbidden.
Bizarrely, the highlight of my time in Beijing was the acrobatics show. Not only because the beautifully choreographed acts formed seemingly impossible bodily movements and shapes, but also because it was honest. There was no pretence. I saw what I saw, all the information was laid out in front of me, and I was allowed to make my own judgment on the performance. If only the rest of Beijing would follow suit.
By the time I reach Ulaan Bataar tomorrow lunchtime, I will step onto a platform barely reaching -17 degrees. For now though, I’m warm. Left to wait patiently for time to pass and rail gauges to be changed. Awaiting the myriad of changing sceneries that will unfold as day breaks in Mongolia.