At four in the morning, in a dark hotel room in Beijing, a grim city that performed cosmetic surgery on itself to shine in the world’s biggest pageant, still fighting the effects of flying across the world, I found myself awake while the rest of the world slumbered. Or so it felt.
Perched on the edge of a chair I’d pulled up to the wide window, within view of the still-shining construction from the 2009 Olympics, I watched cars and trucks move along one of the ring roads that circle the city. In spite of the fact that Bejing is home to more than 15 million, there was very little traffic at that hour and what few vehicles were out moved leisurely, merging and passing.
The hotel, like the city, was quiet and I could hear my daughter’s soft breathing as she slept in the bed beside mine.
My mind raced but it was more than being jittery from too many cups of tea. More than the effects of crossing time zones and lack of sleep. Mentally, I was working to fit together the puzzle pieces of the journey. Trying to make a clear picture out of shards and fragments; sorting the sights, sounds and scents of a place unlike any I’d visited before.
We had walked along the Great Wall, climbing the uneven stone steps to the broad lane at the top of the wall, looking out over the valleys and rolling hills below. I could hear a rooster crowing at a farm in the distance and I thought of the textbooks I’d had as a school girl, never imagining at that age that one day I would be able to reach out and touch the rough, worn, stones with my fingers. Standing at the top of a flight of steps, overlooking the sprawling, mysterious, Forbidden City, I had tried to imagine the lives of its inhabitants when it was a bustling, populated place closed to the outside world.
Under the watchful gaze of the portrait of Mao that still hangs at the gate, we strolled through Tiananmen Square - a place still haunted by the image of tanks and a lone figure - and I could feel the lingering frisson of tension as guards, wary young men in oversized coats, patrolled.
Riding along the narrow streets of a hutong, one of the Walled neighborhoods built with centuries-old clay bricks that had escaped the pre-Olympic wrecking ball, I watched children - one per family - play.
Wherever we went the persistent “mosquitoes” hawked their wares, stacks of knock-off designer bags, fake silk scarves, postcards and chopsticks.
All around us, at every step, there was a collision of culture and history. Faux Gucci bags on the steps of the temple.
Still sitting at the window, lost in thought, I was pulled back into focus by a figure moving in the street below, a modern arterial connecting the new Crown Plaza hotel built for the Olympic crowds to the ring road. He was walking slowly, moving from the glow of one streetlight to another.
The man swayed from side to side and I could see he was sweeping the broad pavement with a big broom made of willow branches and leaves.
I watched him as he moved, stooped and bent over the willow boughs, along the length of the the long road. I couldn’t look away. This man, I thought, is the answer to the riddle.
I don’t think I slept more than an hour or so that night, but it was not the first time I’ve felt fortunate to have been wide awake, looking out on a view that those tucked into their beds might miss.
By day, China is a crowded, noisy, almost overwhelming collage of contradictions. Trying to make sense of what you see is difficult.
But at night, in a black and white world, the answer is as plain as a man walking through pools of lamplight, a man carrying an ancient tool on a modern road.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.