Next morning, train tickets to Beijing were still unavailable at the train station. An agent nearby wanted a forty-Yuan premium over the ticket price. Hoping to find something better, I wandered around and spotted an office selling tickets for the same day. There, the touts returned their tickets at noon, since that was the last opportunity to get a refund. Then the ticket seller sold me one at the regular price.
A fast "T" class train took me to Beijing, and in the freezing morning, I had no choice but to take a taxi to the town center, since the final train station was at the western terminal, not the central one. All the dormitories listed in my guide were closed and after a long search, I found the Saga Hotel, which transformed two of its rooms into a dormitory and was close to the Forbidden City.
Beijing Duck was the natural choice for the first lunch, and Qianmen
Quanjude Roasted Duck, in front of the Qianmen Gate at Tiananmen Square
was the place for that. The duck was roasted on wood from fruit trees and
treated so that no bones were served while each piece contained meat, fat and skin. Although the meat was excellent, the huge amounts of fat spoiled the experience. Afterwards, I checked the subway and found it to be antiquated with humans selling tickets and humans checking them. The train’s coverage of the territory was minimal.
On the way back to the hotel, a familiar voice called, "Hello, do you remember me?"
"Umm, did we meet at the train?"
"No, I am Carla and you saw my paintings in Xian, I came to Beijing to visit
my professor, do you want to join me?"
Intrigued by the seller’s perseverance spanning such a long distance I agreed and we entered a nearby apartment. There, sitting by a huge pile of paintings was the aging teacher surrounded by two young women who later I found to be his latest pupils. Carla presented me and mentioned my country of origin.
The teacher, in the same unusually good English that Carla employed, asked, "Do you like the pictures?"
"The limited variety and the lack of freedom of expression concern me," I said, only to hear once again about traditional themes.
"Next month I am going to an exposition of my works in Tel Aviv," he said casually.
"Really?" I said, while weighing different possibilities of what was going on here.
"Yes, there and in Cyprus. The Chinese embassy invited me. Can you tell me something about the situation there?" By now, I didn’t buy the story that Carla and the professor were casual encounters.
"Well, I haven’t been there for a while and I don’t follow newspapers here. But I’m sure the embassy at Tel Aviv will be able to give you good and accurate advice, and since they have invited you they’re sure to keep a close watch," I said, wondering if they got the double-entendre.
Somehow that was not the expected response as he started to speak about the prices of the paintings and offered a price lower than the girl offered in Xian. "The paintings are nice," I told him, "but I can’t carry them due to the nature of my trip."
(Excerpt from Chapter 55. A Casual Encounter)
The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.