It had been a long, difficult walk under an unforgiving sun. The track that I had cycled down only a few months before had been turned into
an ant’s version of the Himalayas. Inexplicably, there was only one man working on the earth-moving project. Shovel in hand,
he begrudgingly divulged that “It’s going to be a highway”. But he didn’t know where it would come from and
to where it would go. I’m a firm believer that, in China at least, there are times when the inexplicable should be left
unexplained and so, without further enquiry, I wished the man good luck. Then, after more than two miles of climbing, stumbling,
slipping and sliding, the obstruction came to an end. As I was descending from the mound to the level single-track road that stretched
for miles, I was thinking that the morning could only improve.
The next test was the dust. The benign-looking
road disappeared each time a car came along – shrouded in a veil of particulate matter that you could taste and
sometimes chew. I knew from my winter excursions that there would be another two miles of this torture. Missing lunch is one thing; but suffering
long-term respiratory damage is quite another. Even more worryingly, I had promised my wife a leisurely stroll by the river.
a miracle happened.
The noise of the car approaching from behind made me take a deep breath – thinking that it
would create a cloud of dust in its wake. But that didn’t happen. I could hear it screeching to a halt and, turning round, I saw a sight that was
medication for my sore eyes.
A Beijing taxi!
The surreal was cranked up a notch when he began flashing his lights, smiling, and waving
excitedly. These days, it’s rare to see a welcoming taxi-driver in Beijing, and here we were in the middle of nowhere being
rescued by the most welcoming driver I’d seen for years.
We entered the air-conditioned oasis, and the surprises
just kept coming.
In English, the taxi-driver
welcomed us with a cheery, “Hello; Welcome to Beijing; God bless you!”. I had heard the “Welcome to Beijing” greeting
many times – it must have been lesson number one in the English-language course given to taxi drivers last year to prepare
them for the Olympic-tourist influx. But the “God bless you” sounded odd to say the least. I then noticed he had a rosary with blue
beads and a small, silver crucifix dangling from his rear-view mirror.
drove fast, swerving around the “speed-calming” humps that were at intervals of about 100 yards, while recounting
his story (in heavily-guttural Beijing Mandarin):
“I’m a Christian. [big swerve.] I go to church every Sunday… to the big church
near to Dongfeng Qiao; where I listen to a European priest [even bigger swerve]. I don’t understand anything he says… because
he speaks in English, but I really like the feeling. It gives me a kind of calmness I’ve never had before."
[screech of the brakes, followed by a massive swerve, which caused the car to be enveloped in an ethereal cloud of dust.]
I must admit to have been a little puzzled by Mr Mao's account of “thousands” of locals freely worshipping at
a church in Beijing each Sunday. I had thought that Chinese nationals were not allowed to hear foreign priests deliver sermons. The River of Grace
Church, for instance, notifies would-be attendees of the restriction that, “Currently due to local government regulations
we are only permitted to admit foreign passport holders to our church services.”
But it seems that Mr Mao’s church – Chaoyang Church – is a beacon of progressiveness
when it comes to the freedom to worship in China. In 2006, it was the venue of the first ever sermon to be given in mainland China by Rowan
Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the church has a string
of other firsts to its name.
Chaoyang Church has its own website [no longer available]; and its own hotmail address. There’s even a bilingual
advertisement on its site, which lays out the requirement for the volunteer team it is seeking to recruit:
“There are often over four thousand people who attend Sunday services in Chaoyang
Church. So we need people to be responsible for receiving and serving this large number. For this reason, Chaoyang Church
has organized The Volunteer Team. Their assignment is to be in charge of greeting and receiving new people who attend Sunday
services as well as certain security issues and watchfulness of other urgent matters. All of them have pure faith, and have
for long period of time trusted in God. They love God, their country and other people. They are willing to devote themselves
to Jesus Christ and to show the Glory of the Lord.”
is clear from the words and also from reading between the lines that Chaoyang Church is Beijing’s showcase church and
that the administrators of the church are working hard to ensure that it stays that way.
When the dust cleared I saw that we had at
last reached the main road. Mr Mao continued his sermon: He told us that he couldn’t rely on anyone to care for him and his family
[he is married and has a 16 year-old daughter who goes to high school in Shunyi], and that’s why he had turned to God.
is a recent convert. Six months ago, an old teacher, with whom he has
kept in touch, returned from The US and showed him the light.
“That’s a gift from her,” he said, pointing at the
rosary that was bouncing violently as he took a right turn at speed with one hand on the wheel.
Mr Mao slammed into third gear while continuing his story:
“Before I was a Christian, I used to be in a bad mood a lot; and this affected
my driving… I used to be an aggressive driver.”
Within minutes we were at our destination, and in plenty of time for the promised pub lunch. I shook
Mr Mao's hand and thanked him for delivering us from the back of beyond. He happily agreed to pose for some
shots, before bidding us farewell with his trademark cheery wave, and the standard Beijing farewell,"Man zou" ["Go