(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)
I am still in Beijing.
During the night, I was talking to a girl at the top of a suburban street, telling her about the various Schneiders. There was Roy Schneider in Jaws; there was Romy Schneider sharing butter with Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris; and there is Dave Schneider, who I always think of as the bloke in the back window of the Eurostar train as it hurtles along in the climax of the first Mission Impossible movie.
The girl was very impressed and a friend of hers also came along to find out more about the various Schneiders.
Then I woke up.
It was a dream.
I later realised the two girls were wrong to be impressed. The Jaws film star was Roy Scheider not Roy Schneider. And it was Maria not Romy Schneider with the butter.
It was just a dream.
And this morning, as if still in a dream, it felt like I was home in London when a taxi driver took me on a 12-minute round trip in the opposite direction to where we were going, to increase his meter fare. It is what all cabbies must do the world over to foreigners in their city.
Eventually, we got to Tiananmen Square, where all access is guarded by soldiers/police at kiosks with X-ray machines. This is no big deal, really, as all Beijing’s metro stations have X-ray security machines too.
I say all access to Tiananmen Square is guarded by the efficient Chinese security system.
I wandered unstopped and unchecked (carrying a bag) through the old Zhengyangmen (Qianmen) Gate behind Mao’s Mausoleum and wandered into the Square unstopped.
At the far end of the square, nearly opposite the Tiananmen Gate itself, men and women in red and yellow jackets offered to take photos of passers-by.
As I left the throng, four young men maybe in their late teens unfolded a large rectangular banner – red, with white Chinese letters. They smiled as I passed by. About 12-15 seconds later, there was the sharp bark of a voice.
One of the red and yellow jacketed ‘photographers’ – a particularly burly man – was shouting and, as I watched still walking away, he strode and tried to tear the banner from the four youths’ hands and scrunge it up, still yelling towards a police van about 50 feet away.
The banner had been up and visible for maybe 12 seconds. Almost no-one had seen it; perhaps only me. And I did not know what the Chinese writing said.
Four policemen strode across from their white van and marched the four young men away.
The four young men went quietly; they did not have to be held; they obviously knew it would happen like, I guess, maybe some lemmings know their jump off the cliff will not end well. But they still feel compelled towards the self-destructive act.
They strolled with the police towards the white van. The red and yellow jacketed man went back to being a photographer, accosting tourists to have their photo taken with Chairman Mao’s giant portrait on the Tiananmen Gate in the background.
To Westerners like me, this seems an example of the repressiveness of the Chinese regime. But to the Chinese themselves – obsessed with maintaining order and stability and horrified by the possibility of ‘chaos’, I suspect it could seem like benevolent paternalism.
The men and women standing and sitting around and watching what ordinary people do are, I suspect, not seen as oppressive Big Brothers but as protective brothers and sisters.
There are men (mostly men) sitting at the bottom of, it seems, all the escalators in the metro, just ‘watching’ in case an unfortunate accident happens.
Life has got much, much better for most people.
When I was here in 1984, I realised I was slightly (not much) taller than most people in the street. I got looks. But people did not notice my height, skin colour and different clothing if I walked at the same, slower pace that they did.
In 1984, the Beijingers walked slower than people did in London. Now, in 2012, they do not. Maybe I have slowed down (always a possibility) but I think they do walk faster. And they have taken advertising to their hearts.
It is everywhere. Including on the moving rubber handrails of the escalators in the metro.
And I was very impressed by a very inventive way of advertising on the walls inside the metro tunnels as the trains speed between stations.
As the train carriage speeds by through the dark tunnels, on the black walls are a series of pictures which appear to be one static image as seen from the fast-moving train. I guess it must be like a flick book. Your eyes see a lot of the same picture repeated and your brain sees one static picture. Occasionally the image changes. I have never seen anything like it, although someone later told me there is one of these ads in the Heathrow Express tunnel into London Airport.
Meanwhile, watching TV back in my 13th floor Beijing hotel, I continue to be amazed that BBC World’s TV reporter is still allowed to remain inside North Korea. He contrasts what he is being shown by North Korean officials with the real North Korea glimpsed by the BBC cameraman through train and coach windows. Simply the phrases he uses in his reports – “Few outside would recognise this as prosperous” and “totalitarian control” would surely merit the North Koreans throwing him out?
Tomorrow, I fly to North Korea.
I left my iPhone and iPad back in London, knowing they would be confiscated at the border.
Ten days ahead of me with no news of the outside world.
What might happen?
When I was in Laos in 1989, I missed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first I knew of it was coming back through Bangkok Airport and seeing a week-old issue of the Sunday Times with pictures on the front page of the Wall coming down.
But perhaps I have more personal worries.
This afternoon, eating a sweet, a slice from the back of one of my teeth – perhaps a quarter inch high – came out. It seems to be part of the real tooth, not a filling. A sticky sweet was the culprit.
Tonight, I went to the Novotel to e-mail my eternally-un-named friend and ask her to book me a dental appointment when I get back home.
As I walked up to the Novotel, three prostitutes offered to have sex with me. Well, presumably each of three prostitutes, not all three together. The youngest was wearing a white coat; the others were stylishly-dressed in black, merging into the darkness and with sadder eyes. The youngest was bubbly and effervescent: “Sex,” she said to me. “Exciting sex.”
When I came out of the hotel, after sending my e-mail, there were only two of the ladies of the night standing in the same place. The white-coated young girl was still there, giggling and smiling. “Sex?” she asked. “Exciting sex?”
I went to the metro, wondering what happened to the four young men in Tiananmen Square and what will happen to Bo Xilai and his wife. Will I miss a major news story while I am in North Korea?