Chinese Whispers – The ‘Burbs (48)

Chinese scholar 1

Soapstone carving of a Chinese scholar which I bought during my trip.

I forgot to mention that, when we arrived in Beijing, we were each issued with the ubiquitous winter coat that all Chinese wore at that time – padded, long, grey-green, fur collar, fur-lined hood, quilted and amazingly warm. I say this because, when we went to an oil field on Shandong Province, there was a photo of me only you couldn’t tell who the heck it was because I was so rugged up: thermal underwear; jeans; two pairs of socks; steel-capped boots; t-shirt; jumper; thick jumper; padded winter coat; scarf;  woollen beanie and fur hood pulled right down over my forehead!

I’ve mentioned it in a previous post, but just to recount: we were taken to meet a women’s brigade working on the oil field. I had enormous respect and admiration for them because I couldn’t imagine working in those freezing cold temperatures, I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold and, as it was flat, the wind screamed across the oil fields and added in a wind chill factor.We met the young women in the cabin where they stayed while working shifts on the oil field, and where they had bunk beds for their night accommodation.

We had a wonderful time talking to them, much laughter and many jokes because Chinese people have a wonderful sense of humour. We sang an Aussie song about women workers to them and they sang a song back about women workers in China.  We asked why they had a separate brigade and their leader told us they’d found that the women worked better on their own where they could be more independent and not feel intimidated by male colleagues.

We didn’t stay long in Shandong Province and, when we returned to Beijing, we caught an overnight train to Changsha which really was pretty untouched at that time by foreign visitors.  If you have never travelled overnight on a Chinese train, at least at that time when we were there, you have missed a very interesting experience.  We were in the first class section and were served the ubiquitous jasmine tea plus a very tasty dinner. We had bunks in our own compartments to sleep in, but it was the visits to the toilets which were the most, well, interesting!  The stench was unbelievable as quite often the aim by the men had missed by a mile so when you entered the toilet you were paddling in urine.  Also the toilets got blocked up very easily which added to the unbelievable pong.  All of us had to use the toilet the next morning and we all staggered back to our compartment looking green and somewhat nauseous!

When we reached Changsha, we stayed in a hotel which was not geared much to foreign visitors but more to Chinese people staying there which was interesting as we got a better view of China than when we were staying in a Westernised hotel. The one thing I really didn’t like, though, was the number of spittoons parked around the hotel with Chinese hawking and spitting in them as we headed to the dining room. That really did put me off my breakfast!  I understand that this practice is now frowned upon as being unhygienic.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived was the chlorine in the water. Wherever we arrived, we’d head to the flask of jasmine tea which was found in every hotel we stayed in.  And we all took one mouthful in Changsha and spat out the tea. It reeked of chlorine as did every meal we had in the hotel, so much so that we all virtually stopped eating as the taste of chlorine was so vile. At one meal we got quite excited to get a dish of soup, only to feel our faces fall when we tasted the chlorine again and also squared up to a fish’s head floating to the top of the soup and staring at us out its dead, black eye!

We were mainly in Changsha to head out to see the birthplace of Chairman Mao, quite a long journey to Mt Shaoshan which is about 130 kms from Changsha.  It was interesting to be in a really rural location, to see the very plain conditions in which Mao Zedong had lived as a young man, and also, in the freezing conditions, to shudder when they told us of Mao’s daily routine of washing from the well outside whatever the weather. Yes, we were softie Westerners and none of us felt like adopting Mao’s routine when we got home!

From Changsha, we caught a train to Guangzhou to wind up our tour. We had told our tour guides that we were quite tired from the trip and not very hungry to explain the loss of appetite in Changsha, but the food they dished up on the  train was Cantonese Chinese cooking and we descended on the food like a plague of locusts, much to the surprise of our guides!

In Guangzhou we had quite a rest as we were very tired after what was a really hectic trip, but we did get to see the Memorial Hall of the China Communist Party Third People’s Congress in Guangzhou, where we heard about the history of the CPC and its foundation meetings. To be very honest, I was so knackered by the time we got to the building that I don’t really recall much about what happened at the end of our tour.

I do know that we had a wind-up meeting with our tour guides where we were all quite emotional at having to say good-bye, as we’d become good friends during our three week tour. But all good things come to an end and finally we caught the train from Guangzhou back to the border and then to Hong Kong where we stayed overnight before flying back to Sydney, Australia.

In my next post, I’ll revisit our cultural experiences during the tour and in my last post about China in 1978 also bang on about the food in China which was an experience in itself. I’m also going to do a final post about China – about my visit to Xian in 1995 – and all the changes I saw that had happened since my initial visit.
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