It was dark that night. Only a few clouds marred the inky blue darkness of a clear night sky. We were seated on the broken curb of a sidewalk outside my apartment breathing deeply of the cool night air. We had just spent four hours with our Chinese co-workers, eating a huge meal of Korean BBQ and washing it all down with large amounts of bai jiu.
It was Craig’s 32nd birthday, and they weren’t going to let us sneak out early. After what seemed like dozens of glasses of the awful tasting brew, we were trying to clear our heads. The night was still young and we were looking for some excitement.
Chris was edgy. His cigarette was burning slow ash as he flipped a one kuai coin over and over in his hand.
Craig broke the silence first. “It’s still early guys. What are we going to do for the rest of the night?”
Each of us stopped to ponder over the rather short list of exciting evening activities we could do in Northeast China. There was Rock Club Plaza, the Mayflower, and a few other bars, but none of us felt like going to a club or seeing other people.
“I want to make this day memorable. I want some excitement,” he continued.
Chris looked my way and raised his eyebrows. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
We had been planning a trip to the old gas tower for a few weeks now. Surrounded by a high rock wall and guarded by three guards with vicious looking dogs, the gas tower was located at the far south east corner of the park. It was an eyesore that could be seen for miles.
We were planning to climb the rusty stairs to the top some night to enjoy some cold beers and a smoke while looking out over the entire city. Was tonight the night? It seemed so.
After quickly explaining our plan to Craig, we ran upstairs to grab some provisions for the rest of the evening. Black trousers, shoes, a sweater and cap for me. Chris had on dark combats and Craig stuck out like a sore thumb in his bright red T-shirt. He snatched an old black sarong off the back of the sofa and knotted it around his neck to hide his garish shirt. It hung down like a long black cape over his shoulders.
Craig and I stuffed some cold pints into my knapsack, while Chris raided my fridge for Korean bulgogi sausages and eggs to throw at the dogs. He was convinced that this would keep them quiet enough for us to make a quick getaway.
The gas tower is a short ten-minute walk from my apartment. On the way there, we discussed our plan of action.
Chris took the lead when we arrived and vaulted easily over the high rock wall to land quietly on the other side. I followed quickly with a leg up from Craig and then he came crashing and rolling over the wall.
He looked so comical sitting on his butt with the sarong thrown backwards over his head. Chris and I were often treated to Craig’s frequent displays of klutziness. We were quite impressed that he had agreed to the night’s adventure.
We trotted 500 yards across the grass to the foot of the stairs, keeping a close watch out for the dogs and guards.
The stairs were worn, rusty and breaking away from the tower in places. In several places, the stairs had rusted out completely. They sent a dizzying wash of fear over me every time I looked down.
The staircase swayed gently in the night wind and the space between me and the ground looked menacing. It was too late to go back. I wondered how my mother was going to react when she got a phone call about my terrific plunge from a gas tower in Northeast China.
We were 100 feet in the air when we saw our first guard, but he never looked up.
The wind was blowing hard enough to make the stairs sway precariously as we climbed upwards on the spiraling metal staircase. The guards passed beneath our feet several times. Their black billy clubs gleamed in the moonlight.
Chris’ pants were soaked with egg white when we finally pulled ourselves over the edge. Every single egg had smashed in his pockets on our way up to the top of the gas tower. So much for distracting the dogs on our descent.
We grabbed hold of the 12-inch rail that extended around the edge as a tiny safety precaution and hand-pulled our way up the thick steel cables running to the center of the tower. Elatedly, we settled down on our jackets and pulled out our celebratory bottles of beer.
There seemed to be no end in sight to the quiet, sleepy city and the night sky glowed with a million stars. The sparkling city lights extended well past our view – all along the gas tower.