A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
The Temple of Heaven. Photo taken in 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]
Sightseeing of course included urban Beijing's premier attraction - the Forbidden City. Its scale overwhelming with so much to take in but on that hot July day every gift shop in the palace was giving away free bottles of cold Coca Cola! A year later, back in Scotland I would relive the grandeur through Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. The Temple of Heaven was awe-inspiring. The Summer Palace in its tranquil pre-mass tourism days was utterly beautiful. To be honest, I could not get enough of Beijing. With its history, its classic urban geography and so many experiences every day it was like nowhere else I had previously visited. Tiananmen Square and Gate was a 'must see' with the instantly recognizable portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong along with the opportunity to visit his mausoleum in respectful silence.
My final day in Beijing was out to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall at Badaling. I was invited to touch the wall, for as was explained to me, "Chairman Mao said that you are not a real man until you have touched the Great Wall". A tough climb, on that hot, humid day reaching the top watchtower I took out my cassette recorder to catch sound-bites that would later be used on Radio Scotland's popular 'Travel Time' program. "If I sound breathless it is because I have just climbed up part of the Great Wall of China - there are so many people here, so many people and many wanting to talk with me. "Huanying. Haunying. You are welcome in China." It was a moment I always treasure - standing there I did not want to leave. I knew that in only a few days I had found something special, something different I was sure would bring me back some day. I realized giving talks to various audiences back in Scotland who through my accounts and images shared this fascination.
That evening I boarded a train south to the tropics, two days to Guangzhou and another life changing story. It would be seven more years before I returned to Beijing – a city making tumultuous changes in appearance and infrastructure but waiting to be rediscovered through camera, text and sound.