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.
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!).