Judging by the incredible response to his debut guest post, I believe Paul Curran no longer needs an introduction – here’s his next awesome story!
By Paul Curran
Many thanks to Cordelia’s Mom for another opportunity to guest post on her site. When last we met, we navigated the infamous Wreckhouse during my trucking days (to which we shall return in future posts).
I seem to have a somewhat twisted mind which requires that I spend years contemplating life (i.e. working alone and in peace) and then years of learning or managing. Unlike most normal people, I don’t seem to do this in a linear pattern. Rather, I flip-flop between trucking and either managing or learning.
So, to make a long story short, some years after the Wreckhouse sortie, I found myself doing an MBA while working full time as a manager in a large retail organization. How that came to be is literally mind-boggling, and perhaps we’ll check it out another time. Suffice it to say that in the course of doing a two-year Masters, one full credit was a team investigation of a real international business problem and the subsequent production of a report and recommendations as consultants on the solution to that problem. It required the whole team of five to spend at least ten days on the ground investigating in a foreign country (not North America).
And that is how we came to be in Beijing during the celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Having seen my style, you will know that, like most males, when I encounter a problem, I narrow my focus and attack said problem, be it with someone else’s idea or with my own. This strategy is very annoying to women who see it as narrowing one’s options – which is probably true.
Upon our arrival at our hotel in the evening, we unpacked our bags and were too excited to go to bed, so we decided to take a walk. Travelling north we saw lights to our left, so we made our way over and came upon the north end of Tiananmen Square. This is the fourth largest square in the world and if you set aside 4 square feet for each human to stand you could fit the unbelievable number of over 1.1 million people in the square simultaneously. To say it is large is to perfect the meaning of understatement. We entered the Square, which stretches north-south, on the north end and preceded south – parallel to the way we had walked from the hotel.
The cultural differences were amazing. There were few vendors (no food) except for kites, which are very popular, and people were milling about just relaxing. No one was making much noise other than normal conversation, but there were easily tens of thousands present, and more arriving each moment from both ends of the Square. The perimeter of the Square was, like a lot of squares, defined by a decorative fence – as much to control entrance/exit as to set a boundary so visitors wouldn’t accidentally step into road traffic beyond.
As we walked down the Square marveling at how quiet and unexciting the scene was for a national holiday, we passed a few gardens and small temples along the way, but the majority was emptiness.
As we walked south, intending to exit and walk east to our hotel or catch the subway at Qianmen for a few stops, the crowds were growing, and there must have been closer to 100,000 people in the Square now.
“A” is our hotel -Novotel Xinqiao Beijing – and the large grey rectangle on the left is Tiananmen Square with Qianmen subway stop at the bottom.
As we approached the south end of the Square, we noticed that chest-high steel barricades had been set up to prevent anyone from exiting. Also, the subway entrance on the Square had been converted so that it would only let people into the Square, not out of it. The subway was a write-off – the stairs were so crowded with entering people that there was no way possible to get down (like a high pressure hose flooding the Square with people). We leaned on the steel barricades and looked wistfully at freedom on the far side of the road. It turned out that we could only exit the Square by walking back up to the North end and then back to our hotel, which would entail traveling back down the same kilometer to 50 feet from where we were currently standing – on the other side of the road. There were guards standing some distance away, but they were the lowest of the official tiers of authority and only carried whistles and shrill voices – no one paid them much attention.
[Editorial Note: Even without weapons, they look plenty intimidating to me!]
Expecting full compliance, it had not occurred to the Chinese government that anyone would dare defy their crowd control arrangements, so accordingly, they had built the barriers with horizontal bars, making climbing an easy task. And, they had not secured the bases, which were just stands. As we were pondering escape, a crowd of people who also wanted to exit began to build up behind us, muttering. The barricades were too heavy to lift, but they could be climbed, so in a moment of abandon, we agreed to go over them.
With the crowd [surprisingly] cheering, we climbed the barricades, but as we reached the top, they started to teeter and then fell outwards into the road traffic on the far side. Two sections had fallen, and with a roar, the crowds surged through the space, completely blocking traffic as they ran over the top of the tumbled barricades.
This was getting a bit out of hand as thousands poured onto the roadway behind us. The whistle-blowing “cops” were tweeting away and could barely be heard over the pandemonium. In an effort to escape the cops and the crowd, we headed straight across the road and found ourselves facing another set of identical barricades with crowds on the far side. To my complete astonishment, the crowds were cheering and whistling and clapping, as if this was the most exciting thing they’d seen in their lives.
As we started to climb over the second set of barricades, many helping hands appeared as everyone surged forward to aid us over the obstacle. The weight of the crowd kept the barricades from tumbling, and within seconds we were immersed in the ocean of people. We were walking (hoping we were inconspicuous) east on Qianmen Street towards our hotel when, of course, we came upon an old favorite with a slightly different sign.
Looking back down Qianmen, we could see the traffic backing up as crowds continued to surge onto the roadway from Tiananmen Square. Oops.
We ducked into the McDonald’s and ordered Big Macs and fries and discussed the mini-riot we had just created. It actually seemed somewhat surreal eating hamburgers and fries in familiar surroundings while over 12,000 miles from home and in a completely different culture. Appetites satisfied, we finished the short trip back to the hotel wondering what other exciting adventures would fill our days – the first day not even being over yet.
Ahh, Home Sweet Home
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For this post, photo credits are embedded in the images themselves.