Temple of Heaven


Okay, this is how it was. I wanted to go on holiday to Japan; my partner wanted to go to China. We sat down to discuss the situation in our living room one afternoon and, of course, needless to say, she ended up getting her way….

So, anyway, never mind all that, there we are in central Beijing one day, not far from Tiananmen Square. It is a bright but piercingly cold morning. Motorbikes streaming past like demented hornets. Tastable pollution fumes. Lots of poker-faced folk scurrying hither and thither. We are on our way to the Temple of Heaven, a Buddhist pagoda famous because of its associations with the Ming and Qing dynasties. Suddenly, as we turn around a corner, my partner begins to complain that her feet are hurting and that she can’t carry on walking much further. I bring out my guidebook and inform her that, according to the Lonely Planet Guide to China, we are only about a mile away from the Temple of Heaven … but she’s having none of it. ‘My feet have really swollen up,’ she complains, giving me a recriminatory look. ‘If we don’t catch a taxi, I’m just going to sit down by the side of the road and we won’t go anywhere.’

Faced with that kind of ultimatum, I buckle in and flag down a taxi. It’s not as if I’ve got much choice in the matter, after all — what with my better half threatening to bring our touristic peregrinations to a literal standstill. As I am about to climb into the vehicle, however, someone taps me aggressively on the shoulder. Momentarily caught off guard, I rotate on my heels and come face to face with a group of Chinese youths. They must have been fifteen or sixteen years old: five scruffily dressed punks with baseball caps, shoulder-length hair and smudgy ‘ant trails’ for moustaches. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but I get the impression they’re trying to make out that they had seen the taxi first. ‘No bloody way,’ I blurt out, no longer caring that I am outnumbered five to one. ‘This taxi’s ours and nobody else’s!’ With these words I push the most insistent youth out of my way and climb into the taxi together with my partner.

‘Temple of Heaven, please,’ I instruct the driver.

Tiāntán, yes,’ the guy barks out and then performs a jerky U-turn in the middle of the road.

Then all of a sudden I look down and notice something: the camera pouch fixed to my belt is unzipped and there is no camera inside. ‘Did I give you the Canon, by any chance?’ I ask my partner, already knowing what her answer is going to be.  

**

It was all very clever. And deeply irritating. In that camera were all our photographs from the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and all the other sites that we had visited on our holiday. Also, to make things even more galling, we were due to leave Beijing early next morning — which meant that we didn’t exactly have time to find an electronics shop, buy a camera and start taking pictures all over again….

**

This little story should have ended there — with us forgetting about the incident and carrying on to the Temple of Heaven. But my partner wanted to report the theft at a police station so that we could make an insurance claim back in the UK. ‘Are you sure about all this?’ I asked in an unconsciously pleading tone. ‘We are in a communist dictatorship where hardly anybody speaks English, in case you haven’t noticed, not back in Blighty.’ ‘ ’Course I am sure,’ she replied, brushing away my remonstrations with a hard-set frown. ‘What’s the point in paying all that travel insurance money and then not claiming for a stolen camera?’ 

So there you have it. The matter is already settled. To a police station we’ll have to go. Consequently, we scupper the rest of our plans and head post haste to the hotel. On reaching the front desk, we speak to a very friendly duty manager called Mrs Wu, who gives us instructions on how to reach the nearest police station and then — a tad ominously — tells us that she’ll be sending one of the hotel bellboys along with us, just to make sure that everything goes all right.

The bellboy’s name is Mr Dong and he looks around my age. Tallish guy. Pot-smoker’s eyes. A brass and braids get-up that could have come straight out of the Prisoner of Zenda. I attempt to engage him in conversation on the walk down to the station, but the bugger isn’t up to much talking, only scratching his head and muttering heavily accented ‘excuse meees’ every time we reach a crossroad and he tries to figure out which direction to take. Okay, I think. Maybe conversational prowess is not this guy’s forte. Finally, after a series of further navigational cock-ups, we reach a monolithic, windowless structure which looks like it has seen its fair share of beatings and acts of torture in its time. A dozen burly Chinese coppers are standing outside its arched entrance, laughing and joking with each other in what strikes me as an aggressively masculine manner. Dong meekly approaches one of the uniformed bundles of testosterone and asks him something in Chinese, forlornly pointing a couple of times in our direction. In response, the policeman looks at us with great disgust, shakes his head, makes an expectorating sound, then starts shouting at Dong and shooing him off, obviously unimpressed with whatever the bellboy has just said.

‘So what did the guy say?’ I ask Dong once he has rejoined us.

‘He say camera, it need to be reported there where camera got stolen,’ he replies, quickly walking away, still looking very shaken, ‘not police station here.’

Seeing how desperate Dong is to get away from his antagonist, I do not ask any more questions, but instead begin to follow him down the road. I also ask my partner whether we should just forget about the insurance certificate and return to the hotel. After all, what is a mere two hundred quid in the overall scheme of things? Better to forget about the whole thing and get away from all these dodgy Communist policemen, don’t you think, eh?

‘What on earth are you on about?’ she says, glaring angrily at me. ‘You can’t be serious about quitting now, can you?’

Over the next couple of hours, we visit no less than three other police stations. In each place, we get told a different excuse: that the matter doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction, that they don’t issue stolen property certificates, that the certificate-issuing guy has just gone home. After the third police station, my spirits are flagging and I am ready to bow out. In a word: I no longer give a damn about the insurance money and would be happy to spend the rest of the day twiddling my thumbs in our hotel room. My partner, however, is still as intractable as ever. ‘Our camera has been stolen,’ she says every time I raise the possibility of calling off the whole enterprise, ‘and I’m going to get that certificate one way or the other. What’s the point in paying for all that insurance if we are not even going to make a claim when we’ve had something stolen?’

Just after two o’clock, we reach a police station near Tiananmen square, not far from where we got pickpocketed. It’s almost like we’ve gone round in some kind of pre-arranged loop, ending up close to where we started. Unlike the other police stations, there are no menacing rough-throated coppers plonked outside the entrance and this time we do manage to enter the building without any problems. Perplexingly, though, there is nobody in the lobby and for about a minute Mr Dong, my partner and myself stand near an unattended reception counter, wondering what to do next. Then, lo and behold, two policemen appear behind the counter and Dong begins to explain to them what has brought us to the station. The two policemen (who can’t be much older than twenty-three or twenty-four) look confused and keep interrupting Dong with different questions. In the meantime, an older, presumably more senior policeman appears on the scene and, spotting us in the lobby, starts shouting at Dong in a guttural manner that makes me think of a pissed-off samurai in an Akira Kurosawa film. I ask Dong what he is saying, but he is too busy bowing obsequiously to the senior policemen to take notice of my question. Great, I think. Now even the bellboy is ignoring us. Nervously, I turn to my partner at this stage and notice that for once she seems totally fazed, staring at her fluorescent pink Nike trainers with a stupefied, somewhat shell-shocked expression. ‘Fancy getting us into this mess for the sake of two hundred quid,’ I hiss venomously under my breath, just loud enough for her to hear.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ the bellboy suddenly asks, turning towards me, ‘you say it was camera of yours stolen in robbery, yes?’

‘Yes, yes, of course. I already told you several times before, haven’t I?’

‘And you have paper showing where camera you buy it from?’

‘You mean the receipt?’

‘Yes, yes. Receipt. Mr Policeman here wants to know if you have receipt for camera.’

‘I bought the camera in the UK about a year ago, so no, evidently, I don’t have the receipt with me.’

Presently, Dong turns around and begins to translate what I have just said. Old whatshisface listens to him for a few seconds, then shouts something at his two younger colleagues and walks off in a sulky huff. A couple of moments later, one of the young policemen lifts the hinged counter flap and says something to me in Chinese.

‘What is he saying?’ I ask, turning worriedly towards Dong.

‘He say we follow him into building.’

I do as bidden, though not without first shooting another venomous look in my partner’s direction. The policeman then opens a wooden door reinforced with metal bars and asks us to follow him inside. Seconds later, we enter a long corridor lined with metal doors which look suspiciously like the doors of small prison cells. Bell-shaped metal lamps hang from the ceiling, adding a touch of Dali-esque surreality to the proceedings. At the third or fourth of the doors, the policeman stops and, after unlocking the ‘cell’, beckons us into a tiny whitewashed room with a desk, a typewriter and some chairs. He then sits down and tells us to occupy the chairs opposite him. After feeding an official-looking form into the typewriter, he asks us for our passports. Once our details have been recorded, the copper returns our passports and begins to ask us a series of questions, the answers to which he slowly types onto his form. It’s the usual bureaucratic palaver — where we live, how old we are, what we do for a living, et cetera, et cetera. Then he starts asking questions about the theft itself — what is the brand of the stolen camera, how much it is worth, how exactly has it been stolen, how many people had been involved in the incident, and so on and so forth. As always, we convey our answers to Mr Dong, who then translates them for the benefit of the policeman. It is not a Gestapo-style grilling by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact that we are being interviewed in what, for all intents and purposes, looks and smells like a prison cell adds a certain tension to the whole affair. At last, some twenty or twenty-five minutes after the interview began, the policeman gets up and delivers what sounds like a closing peroration. A little taken aback, I ask Mr Dong if he wouldn’t mind translating his words for us.

‘He say interview over and now we go to other department to get form for insurance,’ Dong says, smiling.

**

Turns out that the other department is a massive, thirty-storey, chrome and glass skyscraper on the other side of the city. The same guy who interviewed us is now driving us there in a patrol car. He hasn’t said a single word since we got in the vehicle, but he looks happy enough. Can’t help thinking that he doesn’t really have to be doing this and that he is only being helpful so that he can spend some time apart from his son-of-a-bitch of a boss — what some in the West might term ‘going on a bit of a jolly.’ To make matters even more bizarre, as we approach the tail end of a traffic jam, he flicks on a switch and the old siren comes on, causing the cars to part for us like the Red Sea did for Moses and the Israelites. Though I still feel very stressed out, I cannot help smiling at the strangeness of our predicament — sitting in a police car, with its siren on, somewhere in downtown Beijing!

Upon arriving at our destination, we go through a guarded checkpoint and then enter a large car park cordoned off by fencing and barbed wire. There are several ambulances and police cars parked up around us, and also what looks like a funeral hearse. Orange traffic cones have been placed around the latter, indicating that it might perhaps be an item of criminal evidence. While reversing the patrol car into its allotted space, the driver miscalculates badly and ends up smacking his rear bumper into a metal bollard. ‘Shit!’ I instinctively blurt out, only to fall rapidly silent when I notice the copper looking at me sternly via the rear-view mirror. As we get out of the car moments later, I see the policeman swiftly check the back of his vehicle, then shake his head and mutter something under his breath. ‘Someone’s going to be getting it in the neck later,’ I whisper to my partner.

Once we’re inside the skyscraper, things become majorly surreal. After passing through a metal detector, we enter an elevator and begin whirring our way to one of the top floors. An aromatic culinary smell hangs in the air, as if someone has just been in the lift with a plate of king prawns with ginger and spring onions. Under the button panel, there is a patch of gummy adhesive – along with one or two shiny coloured bits – which suggests the former presence of a football sticker. At the twentieth or maybe twenty-first floor, we walk out of the lift and are escorted down a long, brightly-lit corridor with a plush green carpet decorated with rhomboids and other geometric shapes. ‘Through here,’ the policeman says in Chinese, pointing at a wooden door with a glass panel. We do as we are told and find ourselves in a room lined with very large fish tanks. There are no light fittings fixed to the ceiling and the chamber is entirely lit by the greenish glow emanating from the tanks. The policeman says something to Dong at this point and exits the room, leaving the three of us standing there gaping at angelfishes, guppies and tetras.

‘This place reminds me of a Chinese restaurant I know in Wakefield,’ my partner says, walking to a tank holding two large Oscar fish and tapping it lightly with a lacquered fingernail.

‘Maybe it’s the Chinese equivalent of a canteen with chocolate and crisp vending machines,’ I mischievously reply (while simultaneously smiling sweetly at Mr Dong).  

By and by the policeman returns with a suited man carrying a leather folder under his arm. The new arrival is middle-aged and chubby-faced and speaks English with a North American twang. Alopecic patches are scattered like badly filled potholes on the crown of his thinly-haired head. Putting the folder down on a stool, he shakes hands with us and engages us in friendly conservation, asking which part of the UK we are from, whether we are enjoying our holiday, whether we have tried some Peking Duck, et cetera, et cetera. Then he brings out a certificate from the leather folder and, without making eye contact, very formally hands it over to us. ‘I hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation with us,’ he says, turning around and heading towards the door.

Once the official has gone, the four of us leave the room and make our way out of the building. We then climb back into the patrol car and drive out of the car park. It is half past five by then and the sun is beginning to slip behind some of the tallest skyscrapers, throwing interlocking patterns of light and shadow on the highway tarmac. I assume that the copper will be taking us back to the hotel in order to spend even more time away from his short-tempered boss, but instead he drives straight to his place of work, dropping us off just outside the station compound. From there it is about a twenty-minute walk to the hotel, so without further ado we set off in its direction.

‘Well, that was nicely symmetrical, wasn’t it?’ I say to my partner shortly after parting company with Dong in the hotel lobby. 

‘What do you mean?’

‘We set off looking for the Temple of Heaven and end up at the top of a skyscraper in a room full of angelfishes.’

‘You and that imagination of yours,’ she says, wearily shaking her head and walking towards the lift.