Tiananmen Square, Beijing
‘So let’s get this straight.’ As a lone traveller, I was talking to myself.
‘You’re standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square. It’s 2 a.m. You’ve mislaid your wallet and phone in a pokey bar in a hutong you’ll probably never find again. You don’t recall where the friends you were enjoying the evening with live, or the name of the hotel where you’re staying in one of the suburbs to the west of downtown Beijing. Oh, and you don’t speak a word of Mandarin.’
So the last part wasn’t true. My Chinese extended to all the basics – Hello, Goodbye, How much, and Not want! and Thanks. Fell at the first fence on learning the fiendishly impervious characters.
The traffic was easing. The square empty of tourists and bathed in a yellowy mist. A street cleaner with a mask shuffled a brush over my feet, darting a brief curious glance. A curiosity stifled swiftly by the need to finish the job and get home to the warmth of his home, and a bowl of Jiaozi dumplings and vinegar. The call was strong.
I toyed with the idea of trying to convince him that I should come home with him, at least till sunrise when I could maybe return to the hutong in the forlorn hope of trying to find the bar, and hopefully my wallet and phone. And by then the sprawling Beijing subway system would be lurching into action, and then … all would be well. I could at least find my way back to the hotel. He scuffed my shoes again with his brush and muttered something that sounded far from complimentary.
It was hard to tell whether the soldiers in the sentry post were real or not. If real, then they must have seen me arrive in the square, rotate to find my bearings, and shrug. They were standing like wax works, and at first it sounded like they were listening to a radio in their little cabins. A faint high pitched voice, whispery and plaintiff. But it was their own voices, used to quell the boredom of a long night’s duty. A song of home. A song of duty to family and China. More probably a Mandopop song being learned in readiness for an evening with friends in a K-bar.
If you looked carefully you could see a slight twitch of uncertainty in their eyes. An encounter with foreigners was best avoided. It was only trouble, a stand-off of mutual incomprehension.
I sat on the edge of a planter.
What did I know? Tiananmen Square. Bustling by day. Deserted by night. The heart of a sprawling city of almost 22 million people. Bordered to the north by the Forbidden City – Palace Museum complex. A cheery face of iconic leader Mao Zedong, staring across the square towards his mausoleum. A grid system, with concentric circles of ring roads. My hotel was west. Exactly how far I didn’t know. A Chinese proverb came to mind.
‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’