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A Ticket to Ride the TranSiberian
Image by Viewminder
Cut off from the sea by the suspicious port authorities in Shanghai it seemed that the only way I was going to get out of China was overland. This was my ticket.
In Shanghai I had inquired of every traveler I met about the path ahead of me. I had heard tales of this magnificent and exotic railway adventure before… they called it the greatest railway journey on earth. The longest stretch of steel rail ever layed.
An Australian traveller named Mark told me that he had heard that there was a guy in Beijing who could get me a ticket.
I asked Mark how I could find this guy in Beijing. He said just go there and ask for ‘The Crocodile.’ Just go to a city of some ten million souls and ask for ‘The Crocodile’? It sounded almost insane to me.
Ditching Mark after he made moves on my Chinese girlfriend and ditching my Chinese girlfriend after she got all worked up when a soldier who was following me took a picture of us together on the riverfront… I understood her fear in that time of Tienenmen Square and I knew it was time once again to get moving. It was time to move north to Beijing… the city they once called Peking.
Tsu Tsu Mei was a nice girl. She had told me to call her Eleanor… because that was what she called her ‘American name.’ I couldn’t do it because she just didn’t look like an Eleanor to me… I always called her Tsu Tsu Mei. And I think that she really liked that I did… it would have been easier to call her Eleanor I’m sure… but each time I called her ‘Tsu Tsu Mei’ she gave me this look… it started with a big warm vulnerable smile that made it seem to me that she was melting inside with warm thoughts and shaking knees.
That look always made me want to scoop her up in my arms and give her the same feelings right back. Whenever I said her name and got that look… it just kind of summed everything up right there in that moment. I really liked that. Sometimes I wished that it had gone farther but the way it ended is why I have the memories I do… and I hope she does too… we never hurt each other… never not once… it was the hard and cold government of an opressive authoritarian regime that broke both of our hearts there in Shanghai. It wasn’t either of us… it wasn’t our fault.
I was with Mark the Australian when I met Tsu Tsu Mei… we were tooling around Shanghai and we had just gotten on the bus after a tour of the Shanghai Waterpipe Factory Number Seven where I had just purchased a fine example of a brass opium waterpipe. We had seen the place while riding the bus and jumped off… the factory was really happy to have foreigners tour the place. I couldn’t believe that there were at least six other water bong factories in Shanghai. Somehow we had found the seventh.
As foreigners we were pretty much used to talking in english right in front of people knowing full well that they couldn’t follow our conversation… especially the slang riddled prose we frequently used. When Tsu Tsu Mei got on the bus and stood next to me I turned to Mark and said "man she is the most beautiful Chinese woman I have ever seen."
Before Mark could agree… Tsu Tsu Mei let me know that she appreciated the compliment… she smiled and said "thank you" in perfect english.
Shocked that my subterfuge was exposed at first I was a little embarassed… until Mark took that half of a second to start in on her. No way I thought… I was the one who paid the compliment… I was going to be putting the moves on Tsu Tsu Mei. I’m not sure Australian guys understand the concept of a good ‘wing man’ but Mark sure had some learnin’ to do. He needed to watch the movie ‘Top Gun’ and take some notes.
Tsu Tsu Mei and I arranged to meet later that night in downtown Shanghai and proceeded to become great friends. She even took me to meet her parents… Norman Tsu… the first deaf technical drafting instructor in all of China and his ‘deaf wife Janie.’
Tsu Tsu Mei’s father Norman was sent to the United States to study technical drafting in the fifties. He went to Gaudellet University and he confided in me that he really liked it… that he didn’t want to come back to China… he stopped writing home and corresponding with the government… he wanted to drift away… but they corralled his mother who was a widow by this time… and they made her write Norman a letter that made it really clear that it was in her best interests that Norman return to China. That’s how China got its first deaf technical drafting instructor. Or how they got him back.
Norman always referred to his wife as ‘My deaf wife.’ Both of them were deaf and we passed notes to each other over a marvellous dinner… while Tsu tsu Mei just kept smiling at me and at her parents… unbelievable food Normans deaf wife cooked. It was a feast… and not the Chinese food I was used to… this was exotic and unknown to me. The Tsu’s really went out and they’ve been in my thoughts many times since then.
The Tsu family was really good to me and things were moving right along with Tsu Tsu Mei too until that soldier decided that he’d turn our little hand holding session on the Shanghai riverfrint into a Kodak moment. I had seen that guy following me before… he was the tallest Chinaman I’d ever seen… a full head above the rest of the general population. I found great amusement in shagging him… going into a store and going out the back door. It was really like a game. Still… he always found me… he was on me for days there in Shanghai. And after he took that picture I realized that my company with Tsu Tsu Mei wasn’t looked upon favorably by the authorities. She was terrified of the repurcussions. I knew that was it… I wasn’t going to get her or her family inot any trouble. I was going to get out of Shanghai.
I purchased a train ticket on a sleeper train for the seventeen hour ride from Shanghai to Beijing. How was it that I could go to a city the size of Beijing almost a thousand miles to the north and find this man called ‘The Crocodile’ simply by asking? It seemed completely insane… but such was the world I found myself in this year… for me, 1990 was the year of living insanely.
After seventeen hours of watching China slide by through the window accompanied by the soundtrack of nonstop kung fu videos on the train’s television sets, I stepped off the carriage in Beijing, China’s capital city. Which was a godsend because I could not have taken one more of those videos. The Chinese truly love them… they must be a part of their national identity… the way that the Japanese love Godzilla. Godzilla was a mechanism that helped the Japanese to cope with their loss of World War Two and the painful shock of getting Nuked twice. Even though Godzilla always stomps their cities to pieces they always triumph. It’s like a morality tale with them.
When I was living in Osaka someone who worked in the studio that made the Godzilla movies decided to borrow the costume and wear it to a party where he caused it to be damaged to the tune of a hundred and seventy five thousand dollars. I wish I was at that party. Hanging out with the Nigerians. That would have been epic.
The first european looking guy I saw in Beijing… I stopped him as was my custom in the orient and inquired of the conditions and opportunities there in this new city. Blonde hair in China or Japan had always meant ‘help desk’ to me. We vagabonds and adventurers always stuck together and usually became instant friends as long as there wasn’t a woman involved.
Then I asked him if he had ever heard of ‘The Crocodile.’
He said that he would take me to see him right now. Right then. Right there. Unbelievable. I’m not kidding. No shit. I couldn’t believe it either.
I had found ‘The Crocodile.’
The man walked me to a hotel a few blocks away from the railroad station. It was an old building that looked straight out of the 1920’s, like just about every other building in Beijing. You could see that it was really beautiful at one time… maybe even opulent or exclusive… but it, like anything else that was once beautiful or opulent, it seemed to fall into despair and decay under the custodianship of the communists. That was the way pretty much all of Beijing looked. With brown air and trees and bushes that were different from all those I had even known. I always notice the trees and bushes in a new city. Here on the other side of the world the plant life and the vegetation was odd to me… just unusual enough to stick out in my mind.
The man knocked on the door and we were answered by a nice looking blonde woman on her early twenties. She looked kind of pissed off but invited us in still. My guide just turned around and left with little more than a gesture to the woman. I followed her into the room.
It had become a bit of a self entertainment for me to wonder why the man I was seeking should be called "The Crocodile." It intrigued me from the moment I had heard it and in my mind I came up with all sorts of reasons for the nickname. None of them pleasant.
The room was an illustration in contrasts… inside "The Crocodile" had rented two rooms… he knocked down the wall that had seperated them and completely remolded it. This guy was livin’ cush. He sat on the edge of his bed playing with the tv remote control as if it had befuddled him… I could tell from body language that his girlfriend and he had just been fighting.
"The Crocodile" stood up and turned around to face me… the guy must have been six and a half feet tall… and immediately I could see why they called him "The Crocodile."
He wore these braces on his teeth… the largest mass of metal I’ve ever seen in a persons mouth. Communist braces aren’t very pretty… but these… "The Crocodiles" mouth looked like it had been installed by a blacksmith… an angry, drunken blacksmith. Like hammered bars of hot metal hand forged around each of his teeth.
I had to make myself stop staring as he got right down to business. Croc asked me when I wanted to leave… he said he had one ticket and he wanted a hundred and ten bucks American for it. There’d be no negotiating I could tell that right away. I had a feeling that if I tried that he’d have just relieved me of all my dough right there. Probably my gear too.
We were in a bit of a funny situation for a couple of reasons… I thought the ticket looked fake… it looked worse than some of the permits and passes I’d forged in school. I didn’t have a visa to enter Russia… and I didn’t carry that kind of currency in US dollars. I wasn’t too sure that the Russians would actually be too excited about me coming to their country either. When I expressed this to "The Crocodile" he laughed a powerful and boisterous laugh and told me not to worry about it… he’d just gimme the ticket on good faith… so I could try and get a visa and cash a travellers check or something to come up with the Dollars he wanted. Besides he said "I know where your seat is and when you’ll be leaving and if you fuck me I’ll kill you" after which he laughed another deep laugh and gave me a half hug. "I want my money by next week he said." and walked me to the door where he said goodbye and his girlfriend gave me another dirty look.
That was it. Absolutely fucking unbelievable. I’m in Beijing less than two hours and I found my guy and I got my ticket. Now I just needed a visa from the Soviet Consulate. He’d also tell me there if the ticket was real I figured.
But right now I needed a place to stay. That would have to be my first order of business. The Croc’s hotel seemed a little too luxurious for my budget… I needed something ‘dumpier.’ Something where my kind’d fit in you know?
I walked out of the hotel and on to the street… pausing for a moment to take a breath of the sulfery yellow tinged air and feel the pulse of the street there…a moment to let the vibe of it all sink in. I could have gone left or I could have gone right but it really didn’t matter because I had no idea where I was going anyway. It’s like a rule with me… like walking on the upwind side of the street because that’s where all the paper money blows. Go left.
My friend Joel… the guy who’d saved my ass from the knife weilding Yakuza that pressed certain death into my throat in that bar in Osaka… he told me that he went insane and that he would hear these voices in his head that always said the same thing… "look to the left Joel." If he wasn’t crazy already he said that those voices would do it… he never understood the meaning of it. Stupid voices in your head… they never tell you anything good… like "stay away from that one… she’s trouble." They’re always all cryptic. You gotta try to figure them out and break the code. Joel said the lithium they gave him pretty much shut the voices down. I never had heard voices though. It would probably be fun for a day or two… just to see what they would say. I think if I had voices they would sound like Vincent Price on LSD.
So I went left after I walked out of the Crocodile’s hotel. I usually always go left when I got no idea but this time I was especially glad I did.
I get about a block and right there smack dab… badda bing… I run into this guy I lived with in Osaka Japan… Mike Levine… a Jewish guy from Jersey. He had let me borrow a pair of his shoes because I could find any in my size in Japan. Mike’s got this big smile on his face as he sees me… we hug and slap each others backs and talk about the fight that got me thrown out of the university in Japan that we both went to.
Mike gave me directions to a suitably dumpy hotel and we parted ways.
Walking down the street I saw a couple of American girls… who turned out to be two really granola looking lesbian backpackers from Nebraska.
I stopped them there and asked them where they were staying… they said they had no idea… I invited them to share a hotel room with me if we could find one… plus the thought of girl on girl action sounded like really good fun to me. I felt like I was really going to like Beijing. It seemed like an easy city. Things were looking good.
Was this my lucky day or what?
Shit, I been here for like two hours… I already met the guy I came to meet, had a ticket for the Trans Siberian, hooked up with two lesbians and there we found a three dollar a night hotel. Six yuan a night for each of us. What more greatness could god bestow on me? Another lesbian? A blind supermodel? That would just be asking too much I thought. Lady Luck, I’ve always said, she was indeed a friend of mine.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth they say… so I unpacked my gear in the hotel room… every bit of it… and spread it all around. I always unpack fully so if I get robbed they can’t just take one bag and split… they gotta work for it… then I unscrew all the lightbulbs in the room so they gotta have a flashlight to do it well… and then I make some loud noise making booby trap… like a pyramid of empty beer cans behind the door… then they gotta have nerves of steel to finish the job. Never got robbed once. Never. I have come home more than a few times affected by some intoxicant or another and fallen vicim to my own booby traps though. It always scared the beejesus out of me.
The Nebraska lesbians unpacked too.
Time to get out of here… It was time to go have a look at Beijing.
I left the hotel in a hurry and jumped on the first bus I saw… it didn’t matter where the bus was going…I didn’t care… I was sure that I hadn’t been there anyway. That’s the great thing about exploring like that. A new city… just go anywhere. It’s all new.
Sitting on the bus I was of course the only westerner riding it. The Chinese weren’t as polite as the Japanese and they would just stare at you forever… sometimes with mouth agape even… and I found myself very much the center of attention… the center of attention was something I really didn’t want to be. I kinda wanted to blend in really. That was going to be tough.
I started having what could only be described as auditory hallucinations on that bus… that happened alot to me in China… but right there it was bad… the cacaphony of Chinese voices started to filter itself out in my hyperactive mind and become english… I could understand things sometimes… I was certain that people were commenting on how intoxicated I was… they all knew it… they were all talking about me… looking at me… ‘Is that American guy drunk out of his gourd or what?’ I had to get off that bus. The sweat was pouring from my pores. It was getting to be more than uncomfortable… it was unbearable.
The next stop was my stop no matter where it might be… soon as it stopped I jumped off that bus so fast… I didn’t even have a clue as to where I was… and I didn’t care. Away from that hash house hotel and off of that bus…I just wanted my own little piece of contraband free real estate where I could sit and watch China go by and make amusing comments in my head to entertain myself.
This was my stop.
Before me was layed an enormous plaza… I had never seen such a large paved public space. It was gigantic enough it looked like you could lay down and land a 747 in it if you went from one corner to the next. It was so big and vast that the smog of Beijing obscured the other side of it from me. I didn’t know what this place was, but it made me feel realy small… insignificant actually… which was precisely how I wanted to feel.
I stood at Tienenmen Square.
This was the old Beijing… the one that used to be before the extremely systematic exploitation of cheap labor turned the place into a giant pachinko parlor… this was the dirty, dusty and gritty beijing where products were pulled around on wagons by teams of horses who shit big piles in the streets that you’d go straight over the handlebars of your bicycle if you didn’t look where you were going. I’d seen it.
This was the Beijing where the streets seemed impossibly large considering no one really owned a car… the Beijing where the old people all wore those navy blue or black or gray kung fu outfits and walked around stooping with their hands clasped behind their backs as if some ultimate power had ordered them to for all time.
This was the square in Beijing where less than a year had passed since thousands of students took a chance to try and change their world… this was the Beijing where tanks had rolled over them without mercy and their bodies were torn apart by the callousness of lead flying around at ballisticly high speeds and cruel random trajectories. This was the Beijing where their blood ran like rivers down the curbs and into the sewers where like the extinguishing of their tender lives for naught all was soon forgotten by a world more infatuated with its demand for cheap consumer electronics in attractive clamshell packaging.
The one year anniversary of the slaughter was approaching and here as if by accident I find myself in the place where history was made and so conveniently forgotten.
Here and there I could still see bullet scars, burns and other marks that told the tale of a failed movement killed in a single night of murderous debauchery.
It was eerie in Beijing. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was it just the intoxicant’s influence? I couldn’t place it until I found a nice grassy place to sit down and let everything stabilize. Let my altered mind stop spinning.
The young people were all gone.
The government had sent what looked like the entire youth of the capitol city to ‘summer camp,’ where they’d sing patriotic songs and watch lots of motivational films and learn the error of their ways. It was re-education for the entire young population… there was almost no one walking around that city bettween the age of fourteen and twenty one. It was spooky… strange mojo in a strange land. Like some kind of Twilight Zone episode.
Everybody’s seen the picture of ‘Tank Man,’ that guy whose name the world doesn’t know… the one who was walking home from the grocery store with a couple of plastic bags in his hands… the guy who became a lonely human roadblock for a column of tanks… I know I could never forget that guy… he had balls the size of watermelons that one. I woudda love to have bought that guy a drink or eight.
I was walking down that street and a momentary sense of deja vu made me stop… It felt like I’d been there before… it didn’t take too long for the reality to hit me… I was standing in that spot. In the Tank Man’s spot. The premonition came from looking at that photograph.
There was a pay phone there… on the side of the street… you can see it in the Tank Man picture… I thought my parents might like to know where in the world I was so I tried to call them from it without luck. Maybe they’d think it was cool that I was calling them from there I thought.
I wanted to feel the scene out… I wanted to let it all sink in a little bit so I sat down and I had a look around. It all began to unfold in my mind… the direction the tanks came from… the sounds they’d make… their squeaking tracks rolling on the asphalt echoing in the canyon of concrete buildings… I could see the crosswalk he was walking across when it happened.
I stood up, still painting the scene on the canvas of my mind with the brushes of my imagination and I walked towards the crosswalk… just as he did that remarkable day.
Man… sometimes even I have a hard time putting things into words… sometimes feelings, emotions and perceptions are just too powerful and swift to get a grasp on.
Surveying the scene where this historic collision happened from the street… it was so much different than the picture we all know… that was shot from high above… it’s got a whole different tone than the lonliness and isolation that the street level offered. Just like in the square where I had felt so small… even the street there was massive in width… one of those subcompact cars flying through the smog could have crushed me like a bug. The thought of standing my ground in front of a column of many ton armored tanks with their diesel engines shaking and belching thick black smoke and rumbling in anger… I’ll tell you this… with the greatest respect that I can muster… that guy… at that moment… he took on the entire world. He was a bad ass motherfucker who said ‘hey… I don’t like what’s going down here.’ and he backed it up with his hundred and fifty pound body alone in the streets. He never even put those grocery bags down. But for a moment, that man stopped the world. He stood his ground. He stood our ground. He stood for everyman that day.
I didn’t even chance stopping where he did. I didn’t want to stop a bus.
When I got across the street I walked back towards Tienenmen Square wondering what happened to the guy.
These thoughts were crisply punctuated when I found the remains of a completely flattened bicycle. It had been run over by something pretty heavy because it was as flat as a bicycle could conceivably become. It even had a curve to it… a lot of parts were gone but the frame, the handlebars, even the rims were crushed flat. I picked it up, still thinking about Tank Man and I realized what it meant.
Something inside me wanted to take it home… to show my people… people born and raised with a freedom fought for by others… I wanted to show them what we pretty much let happen here… the great crime that we ignored. It was a strong symbol to me at least of an oppresive government that lost it’s temper on it’s own people.
I’d never get that flattened bicycle home, but I carried stashed inside the tubes of my backpack messages that people had asked me to carry out of the country to a place where mistakenly so they thought good and decent people might give two shits about the treachery bestowed upon them in their quest for what we have but could really care less about. A freedom so strong… a freedom so deep that it was a part of me wether I was conscious about it or not… a freedom that formed the person I was and carried me on a long and mostly accidental journey to a place where youth was cut short for having the audacity and lack of patience to demand a more tolerant society where people would count for just a little more than cheap labor.
I promised myself I’d remember what happened to them. I promised myself that on June 4th, 1990 that I’d say a prayer there in Tienenmen Square. I’d recognize their martyrdom to the cause of freedom and I’d pay my respects on the anniversary of the barbarism of their all powerful and vicious central authority.
When that morning came with its sultry brownish orange sunrise, three hundred and sixty five days after the blood letting, when the flag of a nation was raised over it’s most proud square… I was the only person that wasn’t Chinese standing there as a witness to at least offer the the quiet contempt of my heart and the objection of my soul as a counterbalance to the disgrace of the murder of these children.
There were no television cameras or satellite trucks… no journalists fixing their hair or taking notes on those long pads that they carry. Nothing.
I carried no sign or banner… I spoke no message of objection. I sought to instigate nothing.
I stood there in Tienenmen Square as a witness.
A witness to what the rest of the free world was so selfishly quick to forget.
Two days later I’d board a train that I’d get off of in another world… where a wall that represented hate and anger and mistrust would be falling, hacked to pieces bit by bit by a people celebrating a new freedom and unity.