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Lost in Beijing

Jonathan van Bilsen



May 1, 2011

Lost in Beijing

The Olympics in Beijing have certainly given everyone a visual perspective of the new China. When I watched the images of this magnificent city, my mind raced back to my first visit nearly 25 years ago.

The Beijing of the eighties was totally different than that of today. The tallest building was no more than three stories high and individuals were not allowed to own cars. It was a city of unadvertised adventure and I fell right into the middle of it.

It was my last day in the capital city, en route to Singapore. I had contacted the airport to confirm my flight, only to be told that I was overbooked and would not be able to leave on schedule. I have never been one to take direction well and was certainly not about to accept this change in events.

Instead of a scheduled visit to the Forbidden City, I decided to go to the travel office and straighten out this misunderstanding and then meet my contact at the famous tourist site later in the day. I asked the hotel manager to write the name of the Forbidden City in Chinese characters on a piece of paper for me in the event I needed help in finding it.

There was only one travel office and it was near the hotel. Like anything else in China at that time, it was government controlled and appeared to be slightly chaotic. A circular desk in the center of a large hall protected agents from hundreds of tourists. I picked a queue and waited patiently.

When my turn finally came, I smiled and realized that the agent only spoke Chinese. Fortunately for me the fellow behind me in line spoke Dutch and Chinese and, as I was born in the Netherlands, we managed to translate our way through several languages.

Well, it was simple: there were no seats to be had on my flight and that was that. Not willing to accept the answer I asked my Dutch friend to try once more. He suggested we try a different approach. I looked at him and he told me to hand him a ten dollar US bill. He passed it to the attendant as I smiled, realizing how naive I was in the way of worldly matters.

I was stunned at the reaction. The agent stood up and started shouting and before I knew it two men in uniform were whisking me off to a private office. Of course, my Dutch friend had disappeared.

During my interrogation it became obvious that I was not a foreign agent or a threat to national security, but they explained how six foreigners were executed in China recently for bribing government officials. Surely they did not mean ten dollars; however, nothing seemed to calm the fear running through me.

Finally I was released, eager to make my way to the Forbidden City and share my adventure with my wife. I decided to hail a cab and get away from the travel centre as fast as I could. After ten minutes of unsuccessfully waiving at cabs, I was told by an Australian they do not stop along the street, but only at the taxi compound just up the road.

I looked where he pointed and thanked him. Now you may think crossing the street was easy, but the Beijing of 1987 had only one main street and it was used by everyone. Fortunately there were no private cars; however 13 million people meant thousands of bicycles travelling in all directions, without any rules. It took me thirty minutes to cross the road and I was nearly run down by a man on a bike carrying a sofa on his back.

I walked inside the taxi station only to find it empty. A young girl came in and looked at me. I said ‘taxi’ and she smiled glancing at the Coke machine in the corner. I offered to buy her one and she accepted. Coca Cola was a delicacy in China and at two dollars a bottle it was a luxury, as the average income was forty dollars a month. She graciously accepted the Coke and left. I stood stunned with the word ‘taxi’ formed on my lips and realized she did not work there.

I persisted in my trek realizing I was in the wrong building. I walked next door and entered a room, where to my surprise a dentist was drilling in a patient’s mouth. I continued past a curtain and saw, what looked like a nurse, performing acupuncture. I ran out of the building back into the street scratching my head.

I looked up and down and saw a bus a few metres away. Why not? I thought. Public transportation was reliable in most cities in the world. I stepped on and smiled at the driver. I said ‘Forbidden City’ and he shook his head. I was not sure if he understood me and decided to show him the piece of paper with the Chinese writing.

As I pulled it out of my pocket the ten dollar bill came with it. He looked at the money and then at me. He turned to the six or seven passengers on the bus and began screaming. They in turn shouted back and I was certain that I would spend the rest of my life in a Chinese prison.

I looked and smiled telling him it was a mistake, but the shouting continued and finally all the passengers stood up and walked off the bus. 

They stared at me with evil in their eyes as I stood bewildered by what was happening.

Suddenly the driver closed the door, smiled at me and started the bus. He drove for nearly forty-five minutes and stopped directly in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City. I was in awe at what had happened and thanked him as I stepped from the bus. I will never forget that morning in Beijing, long before the city ever contemplated hosting the world Olympics. 

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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