Enough of the childhood clear-out and back to my travels!
I saw a photo today of racks of sweet corn cobs drying in the air, and it took me straight back to the first time I and my husband visited the People’s Republic of China, aka China from now on.
In 1978 my husband and I had the opportunity to tour China at a really low price (as it was early days in the tourist industry) for three weeks. We stayed with friends in Sydney, saw the start of the Sydney-Hobart Boat Race on New Year’s Day, then flew to Hong Kong , where we stayed overnight.
We were one of the first groups to visit China when it started opening up and it was less than thirty years since the PRC was established in 1949. We did a bit of the tourist stuff in Hong Kong with all its glitz, glamour and kitsch. The next day we caught a train to the border, got out and walked across the border. Suddenly we were faced with rather stern-faced Chinese soldiers in uniform and you realised you were in a completely different world. We climbed on to another train which took us to what was then Canton and is now Guangzhou.
To say we – and all the others on our tour – were excited and nervous would be an understatement. President Nixon had visited the PRC in February 1972 and Australian Prime Minister Whitlam had normalised relations with China when he was elected in November 1972. But China was still a bit mysterious, not very well known, and really quite exciting since no-one knew what to expect.
We got settled in our hotel rooms in Gangzhou (which were lovely and comfortable, in case you’re wondering what accommodation was like in those days), and found waiting for us flasks of jasmine tea, something which greeted us in every hotel we stayed in and every function we attended. We then met our tour guides in the evening. And all our preconceptions about stuffy Chinese officials went right out the window. We had four guides – the head honcho, his deputy, a young woman obviously being trained as an interpreter and guide, and a fourth man whose interpreting abilities were brilliant. As I’ve done simultaneous and consecutive translating at university when I studied French and German I could see that this interpreter had an intuitive gift to translate Chinese into everyday English, not simply translate the words which results in rather wooden conversation. We also thought that, as there’d been a period of turmoil in China just before we went on our tour, this guy was being rehabilitated from past difficulties under the previous regime, known as the Gang of Four.
Our translators/guides entered a meeting room with a trolley of drinks and hors-d’ouevres and proceeded to talk to us, crack jokes, and dish out the booze and tucker. One of the first things we tried was called Mao Tai, a spirit which tasted and smelled like rocket fuel and had to be sculled down to avoid the stench of the drink. Our translators quickly put us at ease, were great, convivial hosts, and much to our surprise, created a really pleasant atmosphere. They also looked on with slight smiles and benign gazes as one of our number, who’d downed four Mao Tai shots in a row and who was very voluble, suddenly went silent and keeled over on his side, skittled by the rocket fuel!
It’s such a long time since I visited China in 1977 that I can’t remember all the details. We were on the go from 9 in the morning until 10 at night and by the end of the tour we were completely knackered as each day became a blur. The Chinese seemed determined to stuff as much as possible into our visit, which was wonderful as we saw and experienced so much, but it was quite exhausting by the end.
We visited Peking (now Beijing), Shanghai, Shandong Province, Changsha, Dalian and finally returned to Canton (now Kwangchou). We saw schools, factories, potteries, artistic centres, villages, communes during the day, visited oil drilling sites, and in the evenings we watched movies or other cultural events. The one thing I really remember is the way the children were treasured and cared for. Although adults had pretty functional, dreary clothing, the kids were dressed in bright colours, padded clothing, looked like little dolls in their bubble-like parka jackets and were so delighted to greet and entertain us when visited their schools.
At communes we were taken around agricultural and engineering production centres and made so very welcome. People took great pride in their achievements and opened their homes and centres for us. I do remember visiting a private house and being amazed at the bright colours of the interior – as if the functional dress most people wore was balanced out in the privacy of the home by bright red, orange, gold, turquoise, blue and green bed covers, wall hangings and so on. I also remember plonking down on a bed (all the places we visited were very compact) and feeling like I’d jarred my spine from top to bottom. There was only a mattress stuffed with straw which was incredibly hard, a far cry from the interior sprung mattresses we were used to at home in Australia!
One of the noticeable features of that early tour was how people worked together collectively as labour was plentiful and cheap. We were in a small coach in one area where a whole heap of people were pushing up a telegraph pole. It was obvious that they’d never seen foreigners before as they stopped, looked at us, dropped the telegraph pole, and ran to the road to smile and wave cheerfully at us. We felt like kings until further down the road where we saw people in the approaching village scattering from a truck in front of us. We found out soon enough why they dived for cover – it was a truck collecting sewage (night soil) which had sprung a leak gifting us and the village with a most appalling stench.
In the following posts, I thought I’d break down our visit into Beijing, and then the provinces we visited, as well as one about food in China (yummy mainly but challenging on the odd occasion!).