I originally planned to post this months ago, but other things got in the way and I forgot all about it.
It was just after 11 o’clock one night in April and there was nothing happening at work so I popped out to the shop. I was just starting to cross the road near the Millennium Monument when a policeman leaned out of his car and waved me back. For a moment I assumed this was because the traffic light was red, but then I looked behind him at the source of a deep, heavy roaring sound. Four huge things that appeared to be tanks were rumbling down Fuxing Road heading east towards Tiananmen Square!
Each of them was almost completely covered with a big blue wooden box carrying the name 河北重汽集团 (something like Hebei Heavy Vehicle Group), and at the bottom of each box was a fringe of gold tassles. But the tank treads were still clearly visible behind this disguise.
Much more interesting than my planned trip to the shop, so I jumped into a taxi to follow them.
“Tiananmen Square.” It seemed like a better thing to say than “follow those tanks!”
“What do you want to see in Tiananmen Square at this time of night?”
“I haven’t got the slightest idea, to be honest, and I’m probably not even going there.” And then I told him what I’d just seen. He laughed.
“They’re not tanks. It’s something to do with fixing the road.”
This didn’t seem like a very likely story to me, but I couldn’t think of any better explanation. As we chatted about the big weird things ahead of us, it became clear that he was just as fascinated and bemused as I was. The tank-things had now disappeared from view because we’d got caught by traffic lights and I decided it was time to go back to work.
He dropped me off at Xidan, but almost immediately I heard that big rumbling sound again. Somehow we’d managed to get in front of them without overtaking. At the head of the convoy was the police car, then the “things,” followed by a truck painted with military camouflage, various emergency vehicles and more police cars.
When I got home, I checked the internet and discovered that other people were also wondering what the hell these tanks in boxes were for. Apparently they were making the same journey at the same time every night.
I went out again on the following night, with a camera this time and just as I stepped outside I heard the noise. Damn, I’d missed them. So, taxi time again. We were luckier with the traffic than the night before and I saw them turn south onto the 2nd Ring Road. Once again I got off at Xidan and, as I’d now guessed, the mysterious tank-things doubled back and rejoined Chang’an Avenue behind me. The result of this night’s outing was the abysmal video above. Apologies for the crappy picture - my camera simply can’t handle this sort of thing at night, but that’s no excuse for my failure to use it properly.
So, what were they and what were they doing? It turned out they were testing the strength of the roads and the subways below. Each night all the underpasses were closed off and fitted with seismic equipment to measure the vibrations. And all of this was in preparation for reinforcement work so that when the real tanks eventually roll down this route for the 60th anniversary parade on October 1, they don’t all fall down a great big hole.
Here are couple of pictures a reporter took of the mock tanks when they stopped over a subway. The report was quickly deleted, but there are plenty of copies around (eg. this one).
Now, of course the real things are out on the roads of Beijing. I passed a huge convoy of tanks, trucks loaded with missiles and other trucks carrying barrels (what would they be for?) at about three o’clock this morning as I was bringing one my cats back home from the vet.