Andre and I got off the train at Beijing Central Station, which had one of the biggest waiting rooms in the world, capable of holding 4,000 people. We’d been travelling for three weeks by rail across Europe, Russia, Siberia and Mongolia, stopping off along the way. Our final stop off was in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The train passed through the Great Wall as it came into China. We could not speak Chinese, didn’t have any accomodation booked, didn’t know anyone in Beijing and had never been to the city before. It seemed as daunting as that 4,000 person waiting room.
But China and the Chinese people proved to be a delight. Back then, not many Chinese spoke English. They made up for it with their friendliness. But of course we got ripped-off on the taxi fare from the station to a five star hotel. A five star hotel..? The Yuan was a weak currency and a fistful of dollars bought you an awful lot. We spent one week in Beijing and stayed in three different five star hotels, just to check them out. Many of the hotels were newly built and had few customers (China was only just begining to open-up for tourism). All of them were overstaffed. There’d be eight people behind the reception desk. Another eight in the lobby, waiting to carry non-existant luggage. In the elevators there were not one, but two attendants. In the restaurant, scores of people waited on your table. In the toilets there were two attendants, one of whom would brush down your back while you stood at the urinal, the other would hand you a towel after you’d washed your hands. They didn’t even expect tips. They gave a ready smile and just wanted to serve you. The Beijing International Hotel was the best. On the 28th floor there is a revolving restaurant. Haute cuisine. We sat there and were waited on by a football team as the Beijing skyline revolved around us. A fistful of dollars indeed.
We took a rickshaw down to the Forbidden City and then across to Tiananmen Square. The rickshaw was pulled by an ancient guy who must have been well into his seventies. We kept asking him if he was ok. It was very hot and dusty, typical Beijing conditions. In Tiananmen Square, the site of a recent massacre of protesting students, you could still see blood stains on the ground. I think the authorities left the stains there as a not so subtle reminder not to ask for silly things like democracy We didn’t want any more deaths in the square so we paid-off the old guy and took a taxi back to air conditioned five star comfort. On the way we passed a huge queue of people. Four weeks previously, McDonald’s opened their first restaurant in China, in Beijing. It was the largest McDonald’s in the world, seating more than 700 people. The Beijing residents were fascinated by it and would queue for hours to get in.
The Chinese were yet to trade in their bicycles for Toyotas and Hondas. Two wheels became our main mode of transport in Beijing. We hired the bikes from a repair place near the International Hotel. There were bike repair shops everywhere in Beijing. Punctures were never a problem. Beijing is mostly a flat city and lends itself well to cycling. The broad avenues were almost devoid of motor traffic. On either side of the avenues there were wide dirt tracks. The domain of the cyclists. It was great fun to ride the dirt tracks, especially at night. There were few street lamps. In the pitch black you’d find yourself amongst hoardes of other cyclists, who were noises in the dark. Amazingly, there were very few crashes, as though a sixth sense prevailed. Day and night, we used to cycle to all kinds of weird and wonderful places in Beijing. Not once did we feel threatened or in danger. (Author’s note: it’s probably a bit different now)
Then our week’s stay was up. We still had some money and wanted to stay longer. Problem being, we had pre-booked air tickets from Beijing to Moscow and thence on to London. It was too short notice to change our flight dates. If we wanted to stay on in Beijing we would have to buy new airline tickets. Way beyond our budget. Thus we found ourselves at Beijing International Airport, at the Aeroflot check-in desk. Why fly Aeroflot, an airline that had the worst safety record in history? It was cheap, of course.
Back then, Beijing International Airport was much smaller and less sophisticated than it is now, having just one terminal. We walked across the tarmac to an aging Tupolev jet liner. The plane was due to leave at five minutes past miday. We had economy class tickets and were among the last to board. The steps up to the aircraft were a bit wobbly. The smiling hostesses stank of alcohol. We entered the cabin and encountered total mayhem. It was crowded with people and luggage, and it wasn’t hand luggage. Suitcases, boxes, crates, the aisles and seats were overflowing. The passengers fought and jostled to get space for their possessions. It looked like a 3rd class railway carriage in India. If there’d been any kind of emergency no one would have been able to get out of there quickly. We showed the hostess the large parcel and basket of chickens that occupied our seats. There was nowhere else for the parcel and chickens to go so the hostess put us in Business Class. Very spacious and plush. A nice way to die. The smartly dressed guy sitting across the aisle passed over his vodka bottle. Ok, so we were in for an Aeroflot take-off.
I’ve always hated flying and avoid it wherever possible. It’s not a fear of heights or fear of crashing thing. I rather like being up there watching the toy earth below. My fear of flying is a control thing. Once they close the aircraft doors and it takes off you are in a situation over which you have no control. Silly, really, since most of life is an out of control situation. I suppose for me, flying exemplifies it.
I do like take-offs, though, the moment when the pilot gives it full throttle and you feel that kick in your seat. The Tupolev taxied to the start of the runway and got the green light. The next moment we were whizzing down the runway. I could hear the chickens squawking in economy class. The plane took a while to get off the ground, but when it finally did it was a normal take-off. We soared upwards at a steep angle, then, still at a steep angle, the plane seemed to stop climbing. The runway was now far behind us. I could hear Andre saying a prayer. I got to thinking about all that luggage in the economy class cabin, which meant that the plane’s holds must be filled to bursting. All that weight?! The pilot was obviously thinking the same thing and put the throttles at absolute max. The Tupolev clawed its way up into the sky. The feeling of relief was palpable.
Everyone lit-up. There wasn’t a non-smoking section. The ventilation system did not work properly and very soon the cabin was a fug of cigarette smoke. The plane almost exactly followed the route of the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways. We looked down at the Great Wall of China, the Gobi desert, Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, and then across the endless Siberian taiga. Heading east on the rails it had taken Andre and I three weeks to get to China. Heading west at 30,000 feet we went from Beijing to Moscow in eight hours, touching down at Sheremetyevo Airport in the late afternoon.
We’d been travelling for a month. The momentum of a big journey is hard to dispel. Our plane tickets from Moscow to London seemed like a whimper. We still had a bit of money left and Paris was more of a bang. An argument ensued at the Aeroflot desk as we tried to get on the Paris flight instead of the London one. There was plenty of room on the flight to France, and really, what’s the difference between flying Moscow-London or Moscow-Paris? But it was against regulations and we found ourselves landing at London Heathrow Airport at 8pm local time. As he came down to land, the pilot depressurised the cabin too quickly. I had terrible sinus pains for weeks afterwards.
At the baggage reclaim my suitcase looked like it had been run-over by a dumper truck. I’d been lucky. There was no sign of Andre’s suitcase, which contained souvenirs and mementos of our trip to the far east. Andre had been Aerofloted. His suitcase was never found.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.