Tuesday, October 31, 2006

China Stories Pt. 33: Change of Plans

Bob and I had made plans earlier in the spring to leave China in June via the Trans-Siberian railway. There are a couple of different routes, but we planned to go from Beijing to Moscow, then on to Berlin. From there, I was going to find my way down to Paris before heading back to the States.

The process to do the Trans-Siberian trip is relatively straightforward - you need to reserve the train tickets, which we had done. Then you need to get visas for each country, in reverse order. I can't remember if I needed a visa for East Germany, but I do remember going to get the Polish visa, which I needed before I could get the Soviet visa, which I needed before I could get the Mongolian visa.

Getting visas was a little bit intimidating - I'm in a Socialist country, going to the embassies of other (still) Socialist countries. In actuality, it was no big deal - just an inconvenience.

I biked and subway'd across town to the Polish Embassy. In the consular section I went up to a window to fill out the application. Over the shoulder of the consular official I noticed a calendar. It was the kind of calendar you expected to see in a garage - there was a woman leaning on a car, wearing a jumpsuit open to the waist. She had one breast exposed. I felt like It was watching me as I filled out my paperwork.

A couple of weeks went by, and I went back to retrieve my visa. Under the watchful eye of the government of Poland and of The Breast, I retrieved my Polish visa. Now I had to go to the Soviet Embassy.

I made another cross-town pilgrimage to the Soviet Embassy. The Soviet Embassy was a giant complex - it felt like a college campus. There was a TV blaring in the waiting room. There were Chinese-looking people speaking Russian, and Russian-looking people speaking Chinese. It was a little confusing. I submitted my application, and was told to come back for my visa in two weeks.

But I never made it. Everything Started Happening, and I never picked up my visa.

I hadn't changed my plans, so much as they were simply set aside, overtaken by events.

Bob and I (and many others) had originally planned to extend our stay in the University's dorm until our mid-June departure date. This was pretty typical, and was all arranged. But after the demonstrations started, the school changed its mind and kicked us out on short notice in mid-May. It wasn't a big shock, since they weren't too thrilled that we had stopped going to class and were working for CBS News. In any event, I hadn't stayed a night on campus in at least 2 weeks. I'd been staying at the Shangri-La hotel, in one of the many rooms CBS had rented. I went back to my dorm room one last time, and had about 10 minutes to pack. I just dumped all of my belongings into my backpack. (Later, I found that some of my momentos from my CBS stint were gone - I think my roommate Chad had appropriated them.)

I got so busy at CBS that I forgot all about my visa, and in any case, at some point Bob and I both knew we weren't going to make the trip.

We didn't know when we would leave. Why should we leave at all? We were so wrapped up in what we were doing, so focused on what unfolded everyday, that the idea of planning to leave simply receded into the background.

Monday, October 30, 2006

China Stories Pt. 32: "They're shutting us down."

One of the more dramatic moments at CBS was when the government officials came in to shut down our satellite link.

We had had a satellite link-up which allowed us to beam live broadcasts back to the US for numerous CBS news shows - the morning and evening news shows, plus 60 Minutes, and CBS Sunday Morning.

One day a couple of bureaucrats showed up at our offices and informed us that they were shutting us down. I don't recall that there was any reason given. I do recall that CBS played it for all it was worth. CBS televised someone - I think it was Dan Rather - trying to bargain with the bureaucrats through an intepreter. But of course, there was no bargaining with bureaucrats. Then in dramatic fashion, we went off the air.

I imagine it looked pretty dramatic. In practice, all it meant was that now in order to get stories on the air, we had to courier videtapes out of the country, which was actually not very difficult.

Frequently, there were CBS people leaving the country anyway, and they would be asked to carry videotapes with them to Tokyo or Hong Kong. From there, the stories could be beamed back to the US.

If no one was leaving, they would send people like me to the airport, and we would find people willing to carry the tapes for us.

At one point, I remember that we sent some tapes out to Tokyo with a somewhat unlikely courier: the Cuban National Women's Volleyball Team.

("Hi, Frank, the tapes are on their way. Look for the group of six-foot-tall women wearing matching red track suits.")

Saturday, October 07, 2006

China Stories Pt. 31: Mom and Dad Show Up

In the middle of all this... my parents came to visit. They had planned the trip months before, well before any of the current demonstrations started, so... hi, son!

I was working 18-20 hours a day for CBS. My parents were on a tour, so they were fairly busy as well. It was too bad that I couldn't spend more time with them, but I was happy and relieved to see them. It had been about 4 months, the longest I'd ever been away. I think that seeing me helped to ease their concerns about what I was doing.

They were in Beijing for just a couple of days - they'd come from Shanghai, and soon would be off to Xi'an. They did the usual tourist things in Beijing, though circumstances dictated some adjustments to their itinerary. First of all, they couldn't visit Tiananmen Square. And in traveling to other destinations, they had to make some detours to avoid demonstrations. Their tour guide, they told me with great amusement, called the demonstrations "parades." As in, "we have to take a different way to the Temple of Heaven, because there are many parades today."

Seeing my parents was terrific., and being seen by them was terrific. I was really happy and immensely proud of what I was doing, and thrilled that they could see me "in my element."

There was one great moment when I was walking through the lobby of the Shangri-La with my parents, and one of the bell captains I had become friends with came over to chat. He walked along with us, chatting and joking with me in Mandarin. For a moment, I felt like Rick in Casablanca - like I knew all the people and all the angles in this very foreign place.

Later, I joined my parents and some of their fellow travelers for dinner in the hotel. I was naturally the center of attention, which I don't mind saying, I rather enjoyed. As we ate and chatted, my old friend Cliff came up to the table.

"These your parents?" he asked me. He turned to them.

"I just wanted to say hello and let you know you've raised a fine young man here."

I'm pretty sure I beamed.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

China Stories Pt. 30: Tiananmen Square at Night

The hot day gave way to a chilly evening. The students talked, and huddled together to stay warm. They'd been sleeping outside for many days, with inadequate clothing and shelter, and subsisting on cheap instant noodles and food brought to the square by concerned citizens. The hunger strikers have their own section of the square, where the are monitored by doctors and given fluids intravenously. The hum of the students conversations is broken only by the Euro-style bi-tonal sirens of the ambulances that come and go with regularity, carrying the worst off hunger strikers to the hospital.

Brad, John and I walked around the square, occasionally stopping to shoot. We were only interested in what was new, and newsworthy. All that matters is what will get on the CBS Evening News. There is considerable competition - not only from the other CBS crews spread around the city, but also from other current events. (In the middle of the demonstrations, Lucille Ball died. It was quite clear that unless there was a coup, or somehow the demonstrations had a "Lucy" tie-in, nothing we shot that day was getting on the news.)

We visited the hunger striker area, where I snapped a few personal photos with no flash. One of the hunger strikers, wearing a headband and getting an IV, flashed me the "V" sign.

Without warning, the large speakers hanging from every light pole crackled to life. An announcement was made to the effect that everyone in the square was advised to pay attention for an important announcement. At the end of the announcement, the hush was replaced by excited whispers and speculation.

Twenty minutes went by, and then the speakers came alive again. Several of the senior leaders spoke in turn. I don't remember everyone who spoke, and I don't recall what was said. (In any case, I probably caught at most 75% of what was said.) The one speaker I remember was Yang Shangkun, who had been a General in the People's Liberation Army. His voice was low and gravelly. He sounded haughty and pedantic, like a teacher scolding a student. The square was completely silent, with everyone listening, and looking at the speakers. The effect was eery - the quiet darkness of the square, punctured by the disembodied voices. It reinforced how disconnected the leaders were from the students.

Although I can't remember what was said, the gist of the message was this: students, leave the square. Your time is up. If you don't leave, we will have to take alternative measures.

The students were unmoved.