Although I’d considered myself a seasoned traveler, diverting to Beijing by myself at the tail end of a business trip was a little scary. Sure, I was meeting one of my suppliers there in a few days but that still left me on my own for three of them. I had been to China and Hong Kong before but my travels had been confined to land and water and I’d always had a business associate nearby. My papers were in order, I knew the Mandarin words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and, after hours of practicing with peanuts, I could handle chopsticks like a native. It was going to be an adventure!
The trip started off on the wrong note when I got in the wrong line at the airport in Hong Kong. An angry armed man yelled at me and pointed me off the line. I didn’t know if he was airport security, local police or Hong Kong military. It really didn’t matter. “Oh my God”, I thought. “I’m going to get shot in Communist China.”
My accommodations were at the China Hotel, in Beijing, on a floor with a private guest lounge that included drinks, heavy hors-d’oeuvres at night and a hearty breakfast in the morning. Between that and the fresh fruit in my room, I was almost all set. I still needed to stock up on Diet Pepsi and found an underground mall connected to the hotel to satisfy my addiction. I arranged for a private tour for the morning of day two to visit the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and a few other places, and I arranged a group tour for day three.
Day Two was a beautiful day and my tour guide spoke English very well. I ate a barbequed sweet potato from a street vendor and stood on what the ancient Emperors thought was the highest place on earth – the closest point on earth to the Gods. I was still smoking at the time and thought it would be OK to have a cigarette outdoors on the Summer Palace grounds. I thought wrong. No sooner had I lit up when a guard came over and proceeded to yell and wave his arms in my face. “Oh my God”, I thought. “I’m going to get arrested in Communist China.”
A group tour on day three took me to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Each place was more incredible that the last. The Forbidden City was absolutely breathtaking and just the idea of solid wood buildings lasting for centuries without termite or weather damage was totally mind boggling. Tiananmen Square brought different emotions. I’ve never felt as small as I did that day in the vastness of the Square. I’ve also never felt so “not in control” as that I did that day amid such a serious military presence.
My Chinese friends, Peter and Winnie, arrived late on day three with two of their Latvian customers. We met at their hotel and ate Peking Duck in Peking. Peter insisted on escorting me back to my hotel via cab but I really wanted to get to the Hard Rock Café to pick up some souvenir shot glasses. So, he accompanied me to the Hard Rock, but didn’t quite understand that I’d only be there 5 minutes to make some quick purchases. He left me there. I thought, “OK, there’s a line of cabs here; I’ll be fine.” But the next available cab was a gypsy cab. (And here I thought gypsy cabs only existed in New York.) There was no meter. It smelled of incense or pot or I don’t know what. My eyes teared from the smell and my lungs contracted. We got on the highway right away and, thank God I knew where my hotel was in relation to the Hard Rock. (I have long been a map aficionado.) I was sitting in the back of this vehicle with what could have been a madman, and I started thinking, “if this guy exits before your exit, you’re going to have to jump and roll.” I had gotten a C in college self-defense (my only C ever) but I thought I could at least remember how to fall and roll.
And so, for the next 10 minutes (the longest of my life, thank you), I sat poised to jump out of the moving car, all the while thinking , “Oh my God, I’m going to be murdered in Communist China”. Needless to say, he was not a murderer or kidnapper and I arrived safely at my hotel albeit lacking oxygen and with a severe sore throat.
The Great Wall of China and the Ming Tombs were on the agenda for my final day in Beijing. Not wanting to mingle with tourists, Peter decided to take us to a closed, out of the way entrance to the Great Wall. It was long and arduous. In some sections the stairs were narrow and steep, able to accommodate only the ball of the foot, while other sections had deep, short steps, requiring several strides to get to the next step. Interspersed were sections of undulating stone road with no steps at all.
It was the year 2000, and although I was a slim version of myself back then, several hours into our hike, I found myself huffing and puffing in a serious way. And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, I’m going to have a heart attack in Communist China.”
And that, my friends, is when I decided to quit smoking.