July 27, 2005
"You are now in the People's Republic of China!"
Those were the words shouted by a soldier at the front of two long lines of soldiers who stood on both sides of the stairway descending from our plane that had just landed. The jet sat alone in the middle of an empty tarmac. Steam hissed from stadium lights that were all around . The year was 1986 and I was visiting Beijing for the first time. I was 19 and traveling alone with money I had saved working at the school library. My reason for going, a girl had asked me what I was doing for spring break, and I thought it would be fun to say I was going to China. Once I had said it I was committed. That little bit of arrogance would forever change the course of my life.
The Beijing airport had the ambiance of a small funky region airport. The wooden luggage conveyer belts click-clacked loudly. Nothing worked very well. There were lots of soldiers all around. Upon exit there were no shops or restaurants or people coming up to you saying "axi Taxi Mr.", just guys in white shirts chain smoking with grim expressions on their faces.
The road to town was dark and dusty. There were no street lights so the only illumination came from our headlights which did not cut deep into the dust. Once we left the airport gates both sides of the road were lined with tall trees with long limbs that made weird shadows as we passed... and there were the bicycles. Our van was virtually the only motorized vehicle on the road, but there were hundreds, if not thousands of people on bicycle, lights illuminating their backs as they parted to make way. I remember thinking the people reminded me of fish in the Caribbean... It was that way for miles all the way to the heart of Beijing, past Tiananmen and to my hotel. I quickly stashed my bags and walked to the great square nd sat for a long time watching the sea of humanity cycle past as the wind kicked up. There was an incredible romance to it all and I remember every detail.
I have been back many times since and each time the city has offered me something new. A few years later that low slung bicycle laden city became a giant construction site full of people on motorcycles. Today it is a modern metropolis. Arriving yesterday at the busy airport I was struck that the first thing I was greeted with as I exited customs was a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is easy to get wrapped up in the nostalgia for the past and what was and what has been lost in the rush to modernization but I find that prevents me from enjoying what is here and now... Even on my short stay Beijing has offered plenty of surprised... but I am late. More on that later.