A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
– Lao Tze
The train rumbles over the Mongolian steppe, a vast forever of golden fields, seen through the window on the carriage, running far into the distance, the snow-capped mountains as a single backdrop. A solitary table lamp, central, faded Russian chintz framing the scene.
When you take the Trans-Siberian train from Mongolia into China, it is necessary for all the train carriages to change the bogies on their wheels as you cross the border, as the size of the track gauges are different in each country. During this process, each carriage is gently lifted up, still containing its passengers, for about an hour, whilst engineers work on changing the wheels. The Chinese immigration police use this enforced delay as an opportunity to check passports and visas for incoming travelers and it was in this unusual manner, in an elevated train carriage, that I first entered China in the summer of 2001.
I had just spent 9 weeks on an expedition in Mongolia, with 70 other young people, as part of an expedition for Raleigh International, a youth-based organization that seeks to give young people the experience of a lifetime, volunteering on community and environmental projects and having an adventure in a foreign country. For the past few weeks, I had trekked in the Gobi Desert, helped build medical clinics out of straw bales on the Mongolian Steppe and undertaken environmental research on horseback in the protected Khan Khenti national park. Raleigh was founded by a former military officer, in the style of a bootcamp for gap year students to expose themselves to the challenges of the emerging world and to travel in a way that aimed to bring something to the communities. It was character-building and, for me, gave me a profound insight into the realities of working in the developing world.
I was now travelling on from Mongolia into China with some of my fellow adventurers, headed to Beijing on the train.
This was the first time I had ever been to China. Although I had grown up in Hong Kong, in the early 80s, it had been rare to visit the mainland at that time. China was still very much closed off to the outside world and expatriates living in the colony rarely ventured over the border to explore their unknown communist neighbor. An attempt by my parents to take us to Beijing in June 1989, two months before we left to live in the UK when I was 11 years old, had been aborted due to the Tiananmen Square massacre. I have vivid memories of watching the events of the 4th July on the television screen, too young to fully comprehend the political and social realities unfolding before my eyes, yet intrigued by the stories that started flooding out of China. Of students who managed to cycle around the periphery of the square whilst tanks rolled by, of young women being smuggled out of the country to escape to Hong Kong and marry foreigners, all fuel to my growing vision of China as hostile, forbidding and cruel.
The train journey to Beijing from Mongolia lasts three days and two nights, and the border crossing occurs on the second day. It was midday that our train reached the border for the obligatory changing of the bogies. Our carriage was wheeled into a makeshift warehouse, where it was hoisted up, as we waited for the immigration police to inspect our passports. A stern-looking uniformed middle-aged man and his younger female assistant entered the carriage, making their way down the coach, entering each cabin to do the checks. Arriving at my cabin, we duly handed the inspectors our passports, who proceeded to look through them one by one, handing them back to each passenger when they had passed approval.
The carriage was hot and sticky and we could feel the workmen underneath, screwing and unscrewing, the train occasionally gently pitching back and forth as they continued their work. The policeman took a long time looking at my passport, his eyes darting quickly between the document and me, apparently concerned by something he had seen. He retained my passport, continuing to check the other passports, returning them one by one to their owners until, finally, mine was the only one left in his hand. He continued to examine it at great depth, peering up occasionally to look at me, his face retaining that neutral expression of a Chinese official that I have come to know well. Finally, he motioned me to pick up my bags and indicated that I should follow him off the train.
At that time, I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. My colonial upbringing in my international school in Hong Kong had, with their lack of foresight and over-emphasis on the UK’s ties with Europe, neglected to think that Chinese might have been a more useful language for Asian-born kids to learn than French. This was the first time that I had travelled outside of Europe since moving back from Asia at age 11, and it was the first time indeed that I had gone so far away from home. It was also a momentous moment in the search for a greater understanding of my own identity. But, critically, it was also a turning point in world history.
A few days earlier, I had sat in a field in rural Mongolia, as our expedition manager had broken the news of the two airplanes that had gone into the twin towers in New York. Like many others around the world, it had sounded surreal. During our expedition, we had had no access to technology and relied on old-fashioned letter writing to communicate with friends and family. So this news of global significance reached us as we sat, crossed legged, in the humble surroundings of a green field an hour outside of the Mongolian capital.
Travelling alone like this had been a huge leap of faith for me. Unlike my younger sister who had taken a gap year in South America, I lacked the confidence to strike out in adventure yet had had the self-awareness to realize that this was something I needed to do. My parents had divorced during my teens and the fallout of that, and the inequities between my mother and father in their marriage, had instilled in me a strong belief that I needed to learn to be independent and confident and capable enough to stand alone, especially as a woman.
So here I was on the cusp of my first ever trip to China. I had unwisely broken the first rule of travel, never to go anyway without any money. With 16 of my expedition friends accompanying me on the journey, I had figured safety in numbers and had neglected to carry any dollars or RMB with me. Concerned about where this meeting with border officials was leading, I asked one of my male friends to accompany me to wherever I was being taken.
I was ushered out of the elevated train carriage, still dangling above the tracks in the sidings whilst railway workers made the necessary adjustments for the onward journey to Beijing. On the dusty concourse of the warehouse, there was a waiting car. Loading my backpack into the boot, we sped off through the hot, dry and dusty border town of Erlianhot, the two officials and I, with Rob, my friend, ready for the adventure. We were taken to the immigration office, there awaiting a line of seated officials, po-faced and unsmiling behind the big black utilitarian government tables I would become so familiar with during my many subsequent years in China. No English was spoken whilst telephone calls were hurriedly made, the occasional, un-smiling glance at this young foreign girl awaiting instruction. I was soon made aware of the problem, although communication was extremely difficult. It appeared that the officials in the Chinese embassy in Ulaan Baatar had written an issue date on the visa that post-dated the actual entry date, making my visa apparently redundant. I was told that I must return to Ulaan Baatar, immediately, to get a new visa. A small, apparent oversight, that prevented a tick in the appropriate box for these officials to have completed their job that day. I would learn much about a Chinese official’s way of doing things that day.
I had no money, nor did I have a return Mongolian visa. Ulaan Baatar was more than a day’s train ride away, yet Beijing was in sight. My friends would all be allowed to continue their journey with me being required to make the return journey alone. I was refused repeated requests to call the British Embassy in Beijing, the officials continuing to address my male friend directly instead of me, in broken English that left so many things unclear.
Eventually, Rob was instructed to return to the waiting train. I was left alone in the border office. My attempts to take back my passport futile, I was escorted back into the car and driven through the streets of Erlianhot, for what became my first view of China.
The bustle on the street brought back instant memories of my childhood in Asia all those years ago, the disorganized chaos of bicycles, people and cars: migrant workers pedaling furiously, loaded with planks of wood and building supplies, old ladies with overstacked porcelain, balancing precariously on the trolley being wheeled behind them, young women crossing the street, their hands in delicate white lace gloves, hiding from the fierce sun under their pink umbrellas. My companions spoke not a word as the car threaded through the streets of this faceless border town.
After about ten minutes drive, the car entered a compound, that had at its entrance, a small office that appeared to be nothing more than the guard post. Utilitarian and functional, I was indicated to wait in the cubicle, my rucksack flung on the floor beside me. My companions left me under the watchful eye of a stern-looking official.
I was left to wait for well over an hour. Attempts to engage the official in conversation of some sort met with no smiles. Naively, I tried to explain that I was born in Hong Kong and was eager to join my friends for my first trip to the famous Chinese capital, to visit the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and to eat authentic Peking duck, foolishly thinking that my flattery of his country might assuage their concerns of terrorist activity. Images flashed through my mind of being taken to a police cell, of being left stranded at this lonely border town, with no money and no access to a phone, my parents having no clue as to my whereabouts. My imagination, often overactive at the best of times, now going into overdrive, with photos of the media coverage of my apparent kidnapping on the Trans-Siberian train, flashing through my mind. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid.
Yet this was hardly the vision I had had of my ceremonious return to Asia. Going to live in England at 11 years old had been a huge shock for me and I had struggled for many years thereafter to make sense of who I was. The inability to relate to middle-class white English girls who mocked my lack of knowledge of English TV programmes and contemporary music and who taunted me with jokes about the fact that I ‘spoke Japanese’ because I grew up in Hong Kong, had left me with a profound dislike of the narrowness of English suburban life and its small-town worldview. This trip felt to me like a homecoming of sorts, a chance to re-engage with a part of me that had shaped so much of who I was.
Yet, I was not Chinese either. I didn’t speak the language, I had never visited ‘the mother country’ and I had, to all intents and purposes, lived in a white, colonial bubble with little interaction with local Hong Kongers. My awareness of my privilege had been planted early, though, with my parents taking us often on trips to visit other Asian countries where I would witness first hand the disparities of wealth that are so prevalent across the country. I have such strong memories of children in Indonesia crowded around our hire car, trying to sell us souvenirs, before returning to our luxury hotel resort. Such inequities existing side by side began to haunt me and my acute observations of the power politics of colonial life were foundational in the empowerment model of Hua Dan later in my journey.
Eventually, after what felt like an age, a small, sparrow-like woman rushed into the office, motioning for me to follow her. She had no uniform on and gave no impression of having any authority. She actually looked like a domestic worker. Yet, she was fervent and insistent, a strong sense of urgency behind the Chinese words she was speaking to her ignorant interlocutor. I had no idea who she was, nor where she intended me to go. She proceeded to pick up my oversized and extremely heavy rucksack, hoisting it up onto her back so that she was crouched over and even smaller than she was naturally and started to run out of the cubicle with it. Not wishing to let my now-sole possession out of my sight, I had no choice but to follow her, this tiny, wiry woman and my rucksack, twice her size, being carried away through the streets of Erlianhot. We raced through the streets together, me trailing after her, clinging on to one of the straps of the rucksack in a vague attempt to feel in control. It was comical to extreme. I could hardly keep up with her, such was her determination with my repeated shouts at her to tell me where we were going were completely in vain across the impenetrable language barrier.
After several minutes of running, this young foreign girl in hopeless pursuit of a small Chinese woman with a backpackers rucksack strung across her back, the woman suddenly looked up and pointed towards an official-looking building coming into view at the end of the street. She seemed to be telling me to go towards it, urging in her shrill Chinese and her frustration at my own lack of understanding, and it slowly dawned on me that this was the train station. Perhaps I could go to Beijing after all! A brief glimmer of hope quickly subsided when I figured that the time lag would have meant that my friends would have certainly left towards Beijing by now. Most importantly, I had no passport. I was not in a position to go anywhere without that crucial document. Once inside the train station, now empty of passengers, we rushed through to the platform to see the spectre of the Trans-Siberian train waiting on the platform, my friends peering through the window, beckoning to hurry. Hurrah! I ran towards it, still trailing my little fairy friend, hanging on to the coat-tails of my back pack, as she repeated in speedy Chinese what I could only imagine as instructions to get on the train quickly.
But I still had no passport. Attempts to explain that I couldn’t go anywhere without my passport by this time, reduced me to floods of tears and, by now, frustration and a growing anger. My friends emerged at the door of the train, holding out their arms for me to pass them my rucksack as I flung it down on the platform, angry at the officials and guards on the platform edge, all urging me onto the train. I shouted out that I had no passport and couldn’t go on, my friends just telling me to clamber on board. I was determined, my heels digging in in frustration, my stubborn refusal to move, furiously glaring at the officials on the platform. I learnt later that this was never an appropriate tactic in China but, by then, my vulnerability, tiredness and powerlessness overwhelmed me and I started to crumble. And then, just as the train began to toot it’s horn, the wheels starting to set in motion for its departure, my friends fierce urgings and the woman screaming in her high-pitched tone for me to just get on the train, I saw out of the corner of my eye two officials haring down the platform from the station building, moving closer towards me, passport and chop in hand, arriving just in time for my rucksack to make it on the train, the chop to stamp itself down on the empty pages of my passport….and for me to get on the train, bound for Beijing.