The Camels of Khanbalik

Article for Bookworm Beijing Anthology ‘Beijing Portrait of a City’

He woke on the last morning of his journey, red dawn light creeping through the cracks in the curtain. Listlessly, he opened them, and saw that the landscape had changed. The endless paddy fields were gone, replaced by the maize of the north. Yellowing leaves covered ears of corn that glistened ruddy ochre in the early sunshine. Lines of tall poplar trees marked a road, their shadows striping the sandy path. Suddenly he saw a cart being pulled by a Bactrian camel. Two little boys, in ragged clothes but with shining eyes and wide, happy grins, were jumping up and down, waving at the train. An old farmer, leading the camel, had a hand to his brow and was smiling.

It was only a brief glimpse – but Harry was filled with joy, and something of his old sense of purpose.

That is the moment in my novel, The Dragon’s Tail, when my hero spy realises that he really is about to return to his beloved Beijing after an exile of twenty years.

I didn’t invent the scene. I’d seen that camel cart myself when I looked out of a train window during my own first visit to the Mainland in August 1979. It thrilled me as much as it did Harry. Beijing was beckoning me. It was so close up the track that in only two or three hours I’d be walking its streets.

Beijing! Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories: it was the school holidays and I was staying with my grandmother in Sussex; the dining table was set for tea, and she was telling me stories about China and the magical city that she had known as a girl….

I can see her, sitting behind the Chinese silk tea cosy, whilst I gazed up from my iced buns. “Did you know, darling, that your granny once walked the whole length of the Forbidden City, and the only living things I saw in there were goats grazing on the roofs?”

As a ten-year-old, I had been indignant. What right had a warlord general to throw out an Emperor from his palace, and leave it abandoned to goats?

But she went on: “I crossed the ornamental bridges in the big squares. I climbed the great terrace in the centre and looked inside the throne rooms and temples, and all this time I saw no one. On a red pillar, a mare’s tail waved in the wind. The carving of a dragon rippled down the steps that led me to a maze of alleys and courtyards. Do you know what they were?” (I did, and told her. I’d heard this story before.) “That’s right, you clever boy. They were the private quarters of the Emperors.” (Here she always smiled) “Can you imagine? Your Granny, in Cixi’s palace … Still I saw no one. Not even a gardener. But the Emperors’ treasures were still there. Oh yes, I could see them through the locked windows – beautiful windows with wooden lattice frames. I could see precious stones, carvings made of lapis lazuli, jade and gold. And statues, strange statues…” (I held my breath and she leaned forward. We were coming to the climax of her tale) “And that was when I felt a shiver down my spine. Nothing had moved.” (She was speaking ever so softly now.) “Only the wind blowing through the grass tufts in the courtyard, and the light shifting through the leaves…but I sensed the presence of eunuchs watching from behind the hangings” (Her voice rose in pitch) “and executioners with scimitars hovering on the other side of the walls.” (She always paused here, so I could whisper, “And what did you do, Granny?”) “I ran and I ran and I ran,” she cried “and I heard the sound of great gates slamming behind me…”

There were other spooky tales too.

She and her friends rode with pack mules to the Great Wall, passing under the desolate arch of Zhuyongguan and sleeping on kangs in one of the old caravanserais. They travelled back to the city by way of the Ming Tombs. There were no crops planted there then because it was land that was reserved for the royal dead. Along the Spirit Way, statues of lions, elephants and mythical beasts called chilins watched silently over an empty plain. The party rode on, and came to a mossy wall, a crumbling tower, and behind it an emperor’s tomb. Here they camped, and in the dead of night they were suddenly woken by… Well, of course I now know she was embroidering her memories with the sort of supernatural Orientalism that was the vogue in her youth, a pastiche of Daniele Varé and Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Even then I probably suspected that my grandmother never really saw ghostly green lights above the grave mounds, or heard strange singing in the trees – but I wanted to believe she did. Anyway, I asked her to repeat the story over and over again.

And others – less evocative than her Peking tales, but all adding to my China of the imagination: I heard about her confrontations with warlords, about the miraculous escape of my great grandfather, a medical missionary, from the Boxers and his later heroism during the Russo-Japanese War, about the great Manchurian plague of 1911(“when silent trains from Peking arrived in Mukden station with everybody dead on board”) or tales of beach holidays at Beidaihe and how my mother and godmother once climbed a sand dune and stumbled over the bodies of beheaded pirates on the sand…

I thought I’d locked away all these romantic memories of what I then, in my priggishness, considered to be my inappropriate colonial past. I was 26 years old after all, a journalist, with my mind fixed on the present; I knew all about post Maoist China and what to expect. I’d interviewed victims of the Cultural Revolution when I was a general reporter on the South China Morning Post… but that fleeting cameo of a camel cart outside the window had undone me, and – I couldn’t help it – I found myself dreaming again, as I had as a little boy.

It was the camel, of course, that was to blame.

The fact was that I had unconsciously always associated Beijing (or Peking as I still thought of it) with camels – the shaggy, two-humped Bactrian version, preferably loaded down with sacks of silk, or boxes of tea, and led by a turbaned merchant. Quite where this fancy came from, I’m not sure. It could have been an illustration from my Ladybird history of Marco Polo. Or maybe I was inspired by my father’s collections of pre-War photography that he found in the second-hand bookshops near the British Museum, with their hauntingly beautiful portraits of city gates, crenellated walls and lines of camels plodding silently across the snow.

For that was the Peking of my reawakened imagination: Kublai Khan’s capital, Khanbalik. It was the city that lay on northern plains under huge Central Asian skies. Palace of the emperors, it was also the entrepôt at the end of the Silk Road, where the civilisation of China had perfectly absorbed the mysteries of its desert interior and synthesised them in the great Buddhist temples, and in the market places, where grizzled Uighur traders sold Confucian scholars gum guggul and benzoin, frankincense and myrrh, peepuls, aloeswood, realgar, rhinocerous horn and anything else that could be carried on the back of an animal from the furthest boundaries of the Middle Kingdom and beyond. The camel – to me –symbolised it all

Naturally, I didn’t find any of this when I eventually reached Beijing. My fairy tale city had vanished along with its walls– pulled down during the Great Leap Forward.

Oh, there were traces left, here and there, in the hutungs, and the set piece tourist sites were open. I could wander as much as I liked through the Forbidden City and marvel at the deep blue of Tian Tan. Indeed, if I were only going by the pages of my Nagel’s Guide, I might have been forgiven for believing that the ghost of the Empress Dowager Cixi was still haunting the old palaces – but she wasn’t. The sardonic face of Mao on the Tiananmen Gate had replaced her.

I found I was not alone in my romantic yearnings. The few businessmen, diplomats and Sinologists who constituted the foreign community in the early eighties often tried to escape into a mythical past. In summer we played rounders on the grave mounds during our Ming Tomb picnics, and on New Year’s Day staff and families of the Australian and British Embassies gathered on the frozen lake of the Summer Palace for a cricket match, roasting chestnuts between the overs to keep warm. It was all nostalgia and homage to what we imagined were the good old days, when Boxer-period diplomats like Sir Claude MacDonald commandeered temples in the Western Hills as weekend bungalows.

But we couldn’t avoid the reality for long. Foreigners lived in ghettoes; any communication with a local might be reported by a neighbourhood committee. The city we saw around us had become an ugly, uniform cluster of brick-built workers’ blocks interspersed with dusty, treeless avenues. Clothing was drab – uniform blues or browns. Everybody appeared to be malnourished. There were ophthalmic eyes and belts wrapped twice round the body, and in the corner Co-ops there were long queues for meagre cabbages. The Democracy Wall movement, which had briefly risen up and shaken the communist establishment, was on its last legs, with its leaders arrested and tried. There had not yet been any official verdict on the Gang of Four, let alone the Cultural Revolution, and its victims were still living cheek by jowl in factories and apartment buildings with their former persecutors. There was a tired, joyless atmosphere about the city; the inhabitants reminded me of survivors trying to pick up the pieces again after a devastating natural catastrophe (in their case one which had been political and man-made).

And there were certainly no camels (if you discounted the sad, mocking specimen that waited at Badaling for tourists to mount as part of their Great Wall experience) There were only bicycles, hundreds of them, thousands of them, a constant motion under a cloud of dust, faces wrapped in gauze and sunglasses over the eyes, cloth caps pulled low over the forehead, soft slippers pushing the pedals, blank expressions, each cyclist isolated from his neighbour, concrete and brick buildings looming hazily behind.

And gradually I realised that my private emblem for Beijing was antiquated. Bicycles ruled now, not camels. Sometimes it was comic (the bicycle crash in the hutongs, followed by the ritual exchange of curses in teapot posture, one arm curled, the other pointing like a spout, ending only when one of the combatants, anxiously gesturing the crowd to restrain him, shouted “Don’t hold me back. Don’t hold me back.”). More often it was melancholy: those creaking silhouettes, wheeling through the rush hour haze, a reflection of the Workers Paradise that had failed to deliver.

Changes occurred, the winter of ideological Communism thawed: slowly at first, then in torrents. Imperceptibly, the drab city metamorphosed into something modern and flamboyant. A few years ago it began to tone up for the Olympic Games, like a wrestler oiling himself before an expected triumph.

By then I’d been resident for twenty years. I never did find the city beautiful – concrete and smog are not aesthetic, despite any amount of expensive new buildings – but it had become home for me. I’d raised a family here, my work for an old China trading house was still challenging and, not being a golfer, I had begun to write novels on weekends.

One thing I had completely forgotten – or thought I had – were my camels.

Until January 2005, when I received a visit from my ninety-three year old great aunt, Ben.

With Great Aunt Ben at the Hatamen Gate

With Great Aunt Ben at the Hatamen Gate


It was her second trip to Beijing. The last time she had been here was sixty-five years before, during the winter of 1938-39.

That had been a holiday too, but to a very different sort of China, in a world that was on the brink of war. Her adventure started when a banker friend of her father’s invited her to spend Christmas with his family in Tientsin (or Tianjin, as we spell it today.) She left her quiet existence in the beautiful Vale of Clywd, booked a passage on a liner, and eventually found herself in a smoky, mercantile metropolis, intersected by the dark, sluggish waters of the Pei Ho.

The banker and his limousine picked her up and took her to a mansion concealed in a leafy drive off Race Course Road. There she found seven cooks and house servants, nine gardeners and two chauffeurs. Close by was the Country Club, where, the banker told her proudly, she could meet “all the best people.” Every morning she strolled there, along the bank of the canal, walking the banker’s dogs, and it was not long before she realised that membership of this unremarkable-looking institution, with its mullioned windows and cross gables –it was like a suburban golf club in Camberley or Esher – opened the doors into an undreamed of world of luxury, privilege and excitement.

And the people she met there seemed to welcome her as “the right sort,” “a good sport”. She was able to teach the hungry exiles the latest dances from London. On New Year’s Day she led them in the Lambeth Walk. In return, the doors of the city were opened to her. In the evenings she attended dinners or balls, followed by wild car drives in the early hours and parties until dawn in the White Russian nightclubs. There were days at the Races, and gymkhanas on the weekends. There were exciting excursions into the flatlands and marshes, duck shooting and paper chases, and trips up the railway line to the ancient capital, Peking. Her two months in China sped by magically. She met few Chinese, but the friendships she made with fellow foreigners were enduring ones.

One of these friends was my grandmother, who introduced her in turn to her brothers, the second youngest of whom, after the War, she married. And that was how Ben became part of our family, and my favourite Great Aunt. Today she is the last of that elder generation, surviving my grandmother and her brothers, and even my father and mother, preserving in her cottage in Wales the memories of our China heritage.


In 2005 she was sitting in my house in Beijing, her humorous eyes fixed on the television screen. The evening of her arrival, Wales was playing Ireland in the rugby semi finals so she insisted, despite her years and the fifteen-hour plane journey, that we stay up and watch the match. At three in the morning, she was applauding Wales’s victory, while the rest of us had fallen asleep.

Next morning she was up early. Her energy and enthusiasm had no bounds. She wanted to see everything, and nodded merrily, her slight shoulders hunched under her shawl, as we took her round the famous Beijing sites, but I knew where she really wanted to revisit, so one day I drove her east down the Beijing-Tianjin-Tanggu Expressway. As the mile signs whipped by, I wondered what she, and I, would discover down this memory lane.

Her first recollections were startling. Just after we passed Tianjin station, we came in sight of the old iron drawbridge across the river built by British engineers at the start of the Twentieth Century (predictably the communists had renamed it Liberation Bridge). Suddenly Ben leaned back in her seat and began to laugh. “That sends me back,” she said.

“You remember this bridge?” I asked her.

“I’ll say I do,” she replied. “The last time I crossed it must have been three o’clock on a winter morning in 1939. I’ll never forget the expressions on the faces of those Japanese guards.”

“Japanese guards?”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Don’t you remember? The city was occupied then. You had to be very polite to the conquerors. Get out of the car and bow. At least that’s what the foreigners had to do. It was much worse for the Chinese. Baseball bats and buckets over their heads for them.” She shuddered. “Horrible.” Then she smiled again. “Well, we weren’t so polite that night. We’d been at the Forum. You know it? That fabulous nightclub in the Russian Quarter, the one that had the Can-Can girls? I was being driven back by a couple of Frenchmen. Don’t know who they were. Only just met them. I do recall we were all a bit tipsy. Anyway, the driver, an attractive young man, when he saw the Japanese soldier come up with his bayonet, he wasn’t having it. Not him. ‘En avance!’ he shouted, and put his foot down on the accelerator. We scattered them, simply scattered them, all those puttees and helmets, rifles and samurai swords – and we drove off into the night, in a hail of bullets and laughter!”

We had lunch in the Astor House Hotel in the same dining room that she remembered from before the Second World War and she showed me the coffee room where she used to meet my grandmother. We drove up to the old racecourse, and tried to identify the banker’s house where she had stayed. In that we failed, but we did find the country club. Now it is the centrepiece of a whole villa complex for retired cadres. We weren’t allowed in but we wandered over the lawn, and, standing outside those mullioned windows of the hall where after one New Year’s Dinner she had taught the members the Lambeth Walk, Ben was content. For her at that moment, I was sure that the past lived more strongly than the present.

And I began to wonder: do we ever see a place as it truly is? Can we ever look through the curtains that our memories or our imaginations hang over the original stone?

Nowadays I often notice that visitors from the West, coming here for the first time, are a little surprised by what they see, or rather, what they don’t see. “I had expected more cyclists on the road,” they murmur, or “So they don’t wear Mao suits any more?” Considering the fact that there is no country on the planet more covered by the media than China, with a new documentary on American or European television about some aspect related to China every week, it is odd that the preconceptions of what is to be found here are not more up to date – but no, it seems that whatever penetrated the new arrivals’ consciousness in their earliest youth prevails. For a whole generation of westerners slightly younger than me, the first images they saw on their TV screens was of the drab, post Mao China, when China was beginning to modernise. So, much as I sought camels, they are subconsciously seeking bicycles. How ironic, I thought. The reality that had done away with my nostalgic fantasies had over time become theirs. But that seems to be the way it works. I don’t know what emblem the next generation of newcomers will choose – Bar Street in Sanlitun? One shudders.

I began to wonder, looking at my nonagenarian great aunt, what was the image of Beijing in her mind when she first came here so long ago?

On the day after our Tianjin trip I took her to Beijing’s newly restored Tatar Wall. It is only a kilometre long and it is all that remains of the battlements that once encircled the city. It is more Disney-fication than preservation of cultural heritage, because actually the destruction of the city wall in the revolutionary 1950s was absolute, but this ersatz copy of the old Hatamen Gate will serve the municipal government’s purpose to give Olympic tourists a whiff of the old imperial city. I was curious if it would stir any memories in Aunt Ben. As we sat on a bench on the lawn by the new/old gate, I asked her, had she ever envisioned that she would see great walls like these when she first came to this city sixty-five years ago?

“I suppose I imagined something like it. Our impressions of the mystic Orient were very much guided by Hollywood in those days.” She chuckled. “Great gates and clanging gongs, Aladdin, Douglas Fairbanks, Anna May Wong and the Arabian Nights…”

“Surely you had some idea of what China would be like?”

“Not really. I’d seen illustrations in children’s books: sampans, pigtails, kites, that sort of thing. Oh, and prints and drawings of the tea trade in old leather books, but it was all very much China of the nineteenth century, and it was totally different when I got here. Well, they still flew kites. I saw plenty of those.”

“They fly them today in Tiananmen,” I said. “What impression of Peking did you come away with once you had seen it?”

She frowned. “Dirt, smells – it was all a bit shabbier than I anticipated.” Her face suddenly brightened. “There were the camels, though. They were marvellous.”

I felt a trickle down my spine. “Camels?”

She laughed. “What did you say the name of this gate was? The original one that was here?”

“Hatamen,” I said. “It was the one that led into the Legation quarter. There was a market here too, I think. It was the place Varé called The Gate of Happy Sparrows.”

“Then I think it’s the very one,” she said firmly. I waited for her to explain, but her pale eyes were searching the procession of cars on the big tree-lined avenue and the tall, white skyscrapers beyond. “It was just sand outside the gate in those days,” she said. “Sand and muddy clay, and a big dry moat. The camel trains used to plod by on the edge of it. Great swaying creatures, with long, tousled hair. There.” She pointed towards the traffic lights. “That’s where the camels were. And we commandeered them. For a laugh.”

I stared at her.

“We’d come up for the gymkhana, you see, and were dressed in our riding clothes, and suddenly, there were all these camels. So, naturally, we decided to race them, right there and then, alongside the city walls. Madcap fools that we were.”

“You rode camels here sixty-five years ago?”

But she was not listening to me. Those staring eyes no longer saw concrete buildings and traffic jams. She appeared to me to be in a parallel world where she had travelled back in time, and was looking at sand and camels.

And I gave up the battle, defeated. Reality, I decided, is only what you want it to be. Imagination can transform a city. Everything that was once beautiful may be obliterated – but the mind has the power to recreate it: the child’s mind, that prefers to live in stories, or the memory of the old ones that you can share, and by so doing bring back the past to co-exist with the present – if you only want it badly enough.

And I realised I did.

So sitting under the reconstructed city walls with my great aunt Ben, I spent a happy half hour in Khanbalik, looking at camels.

Adam Williams’ The Camels of Khanbalik was first published in Beijing Portrait of a City