In 1995 I had the opportunity to go on a short tour of Beijing and Xi’an. I looked forward very much to seeing the differences between then and my earlier visit in early 1978.
I had an interesting start to my visit when we took off in a quite small China Airlines 747 airliner from Sydney. As soon as the plane had taken off and seat belt signs were off, heaps of Chinese people on board quit their seats, squatted or sat on the floor and started gambling. It was quite chaotic but the flight staff handled the various groups on the floor with aplomb while the gamblers had the time of their lives.
The real drawback was the smoking which wasn’t then banned. The Chinese on the plane were great smokers as well as gamblers and the cabin was soon thick with cigarette smoke which – as a non-smoker – I found very hard to handle. I was feeling quite under the weather by the time we landed in Beijing and, as with my previous visit, the city still looked grey and cold in the mid-winter weather – quite a contrast from the hot weather I’d left behind in Sydney.
I did wonder how commercialised China had become and soon found the answer in the lobby of the hotel our group was staying in. I’m not a fan of Christmas and all the shlock surrounding it – too commercialised, too money-grabbing, too cynical, too many buying too much and getting in debt, and so many people looking unhappy and desperate in the last-minute rush. So I’d boasted to my husband that I’d be leaving the Christmas “festivities” behind, in a rather gloating manner. Silly me. Our tour walked into the hotel to find a dirty great big Christmas tree and the soft, dirge-like sounds of Christmas carols, quite a difference from the last time I’d been in the city when there was no sign of Western Christmas bling at all!
Being realistic, tourism had grown tremendously since my first visit in early 1978 and the Chinese obviously have to cater for visitors and their tastes. Plus the Chinese need the currency exchange tourism brings, so I’m hardly in a position to criticise from the sidelines!
I really noticed the difference when I went for a walk in Beijing. There were far less bikes – they’d crowded the streets in 1978 – and a heck of a lot more cars. In 1978 most cars were for official business but now the streets were choked with all sorts of vehicles – cars, trucks, bikes, motor bikes – it was chaotic and road rules seemed completely non-existent although people seemed to somehow cope with the bikes and cars creating a sort of mad kaleidoscope of movement.
Gone too was the ubiquitous grey and camouflage green clothing that predominated the last time I was there. Now most people were dressed in bright colours, good quality clothing and lots of swish accessories. Young people particularly looked confident, well dressed and bright. The country had obviously made great strides since I’d first visited and it was good to see.
A lot of people would like China to have stayed in the relatively backward state it was in the 1970s as people were less hurried, less sophisticated and, I guess, a bit naive. But that’s like saying our Western civilisation should have stayed stuck in the 1970s too. Change happens and I really don’t have too much patience for those who say how wonderful life was “back then”.
We did go to see the Summer Palace in Beijing and that really was quite amazing. What really takes me aback when I’m in Beijing is the obscene wealth flaunted by the rulers in olden times compared with the poverty and hardship of the great majority of the population. The Summer Palace is composed of lakes, palaces and gardens and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Here’s a link to Wikipedia’s coverage of the Summer Palace which gives some idea of the size, beauty and history Summer Palace, Beijing. We also admired the Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, a quite extraordinary construction which really embodies the excesses of the Chinese ruling class.
The Summer Palace was pretty much destroyed twice by Western powers, as explained in Wikipedia:
“In 1860 the British and French burned the palace down at the end of the Second Opium War (the Old Summer Palace also ransacked at the same time). The punitive action was undertaken in response to the torture and killing of a European peace delegation that included Thomas William Bowlby. The destruction of large parts of the palace complex still evokes strong emotions among some in China……
The Summer Palace was slighted a second time in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when it was seized by the eight allied powers. The garden were burned and mostly destroyed. Many of the Palace’s artifacts were divided among the eight allied nations. These are still retained by various countries – such as France and United Kingdom – much to the annoyance of the modern Chinese government.”
I have referred to this in detail because we in the West like to pontificate on how China should organise itself and what it should do and how it should behave. This completely fails to take into account the way in which foreign, mainly Western, powers have historically interfered in China and caused immense hardship to the Chinese people. Westerners need to study Chinese history in order to understand what goes on in China today and why lectures from Western governments get up the noses of leading officials and the Chinese people.
A bit of modesty and self-restraint wouldn’t go amiss and this was re-affirmed to me when we were in Xi’an. Thankfully, when we took off from Beijing Airport for Xi’an, the fighter pilots who had flow the aircraft when I first visited in 1978 had now been replaced by modern-trained pilots, so we took off at a normal speed instead of rocketing up into what felt like space when we flew in China in 1978!
We visited a museum in Xi’an which hadn’t been open long when I visited the city with its draw card, the Terra Cotta warriors and horses. It had a reconstructed version of a 5,000-year-old village which had been excavated in Shaanxi Province and our tour guides were very proud to inform us that this had a matriarchal social structure.
We looked at the most beautiful artifacts over the 5,000 year old history portrayed in this museum and it reminded me that China had a flourishing culture and creative outlets when nothing like this existed in early Europe or Britain. American Western culture which US leaders are proud to boast about only started up at a comparatively recent past, in 1776. And saying this does not include the extensive history of Native American/First Nations cultures which was ignored for so long and subjected to many attempts to destroy it completely.
Visiting the Terra Cotta warriors and horses is really a quite humbling experience. Here were ranks upon ranks of warriors, each one crafted individually, and designed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. They were buried with him in 210-209 BCE, with the aim of protecting him in his after life.
The existence of this army was forgotten until 1974 when a peasant digging a well during a time of drought hit one on the head while excavating. It is a quite extraordinary experience when you walk into the great hall housing these terra cotta figures as each one is crafted individually. In the slight haze of dust in the air, you can almost imagine them moving and coming alive. It’s estimated that more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses were buried in the area, with some still being excavated.
As you drive around Xian you see mounds all over the place which denote the burial places of ruling figures including relatives. We asked our guides why they hadn’t been excavated and they told us that, while they knew which figures were interred where, they were in no hurry to open up tombs until they had the expertise and knowledge to do the excavation work properly and efficiently. This went particularly for the tomb of the Emperor Qin which still hasn’t been opened up. They were adamant that Chinese specialists would be in charge of any excavations and it was clear that there is still a great sensitivity to the actions of foreign countries in the past as well as the plunder of Chinese artifacts which are displayed in Western museums, an affront to the dignity and self-respect of the Chinese people.
I left China on my last visit with a profound respect at what had been achieved since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. People who criticise the country forget the devastated country that existed after the end of World War 2 and the way in which the nation has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. We’re fed a diet of constant criticism in the Western media when a bit of self-examination of what’s happening in Western nations wouldn’t go amiss – particularly the huge and growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of the people.
Do I think everything’s hunky-dory in China? No, of course not. I don’t look at the country through rose-coloured glasses. But I do look with respect at what has been achieved and the great strides forward in the well-being of the people. I watch Western governments like the US and UK bang on about human rights in China but, to me, it’s simply an attempt to interfere in China’s affairs. If Western leaders were so concerned about human rights, they could look in their own backyard, take responsibility for the awful carnage that has erupted in the Middle East after the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, criticise the perfectly dreadful human rights situation in Saudi Arabia (but hey, they’ve got oil) or stand up for Palestinian rights to self-determination.
And with that final little rant under my belt, I’ll wind up my series of posts on my visits to China. I still have very good memories of the goodwill of the people I met, the wonderful sense of raucous humour and the patience with curious tourists who really must drive those in the tourist industry right around the twist on many occasions. So I will finish with a toast of “Ganbei” to the achievements of the Chinese people and memories of skulling the Chinese liqueur mao-tai which, quite rightly, was described by CBS’s anchor, Dan Rather, as “liquid razor blades”. He could also have mentioned the smell of burnt rubber!
In 1972 I was still going out with Bill, someone I’d known since my second year at University. We broke up and got back together again on countless occasions, mainly because he was a Gemini. He always thought the grass was greener on the other side, until he got there and decided he actually preferred being with me. I, on the other hand, had little self-esteem or self-confidence, thought I had to have a guy around to show I was part of the in-crowd – because I was terrified of being an outsider – and put up with this bizarre behaviour. El Stupido and mad, quite mad. But I was young.
I’d split up again with Bill (story of our relationship) just before he went to Israel but he phoned me from there to ask me to join him as he was lonely. And I was soppy enough to agree, much to the disgust of my friend at the office where I was working. What can I say? She was quite right, but I was too stupid and insecure to say no. Plus I was getting bored where I was working and resentful at their refusal to give me a pay increase. So I contacted the people who organised kibbutz visits, got the name of the kibbutz where I was to work – Eilon – as well as my flight tickets and I was all prepared to hoof it to the unknown because it sounded interesting.
Things got a bit derailed before I left though. I had met Jack through one of my flatmates and we were casual friends for a while but then suddenly clicked at a party for – wait for it – my departure to Israel to join Bill! As Jack had already booked also to go to Israel to work on a kibbutz but a bit later, we decided to suspend our relationship until after we were both back in the UK. Once the Israeli adventures were over for both of us, we intended to head off to Australia which, as I’ve written about in an earlier post, we eventually did in autumn 1972.
At that time, you could work on a kibbutz for three months or so and get a fairly cheap flight to Israel on El Al. I knew nothing – zip, nada, zilch – about Middle Eastern politics. In fact, I really think I sleepwalked through my early life, as I’ve previously mentioned, until I got to Australia. So I said goodbye to Sam and flew to join Bill in Israel where he’d already been working on a kibbutz.
As the plane approached Tel Aviv Airport, I got distinctly uneasy because the guy sitting beside me had disappeared leaving a black bag under the seat in front of his. I kept glancing at it, imagining a bomb of some sort, and had just geared myself up to approach one of the cabin crew when the guy returned – he was an El Al pilot returning to Israel and had wandered up front to talk to the flight crew. You have no idea how relieved I was!
When I got to Israel, I realised I’d really landed in the proverbial quagmire. I still liked Bill, he was a really nice bloke, and I was torn as to whether I was making the right decision or not. Eventually I told him what had happened just before I left and he was pretty angry and upset. But we decided to keep going and my parents had advised me not to make any decisions one way or another until I got back to the UK.
Before we took off for Kibbutz Eilon, we enjoyed visiting Jerusalem, Jaffa on the coast, Acre, and then Haifa and other ports along the coast as we travelled to our kibbutz on the border with Lebanon. Jerusalem was absolutely fascinating and beautiful. The Dome of the Rock was stunning. And I loved roaming the pathways of the Old City, feeling the ancient history in the narrow walkways and admiring the various arts and crafts. We hitchhiked most of the time as it was a common practice then to pick up travellers. If there was a member of the armed forces also hitchhiking, however, they always got preference.
I thought it was amazing as we travelled up the coast to see banana plantations with bags over the fruit in different colours according to the ripening of the fruit. And orange and lemon groves were also a new experience – it all seemed so exotic. I was also surprised to find that there were no tides in the Mediterranean, something I’d never even thought about (but which stood me in good stead when we moved to North Cyprus!).
At the time I was there, Eilon was a relatively small kibbutz with a small number of volunteers, as we – transient visitors/workers – were called. I really loved my time on the kibbutz. I had no idea what was going on in the rest of the country or the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lived really in a bit of a bubble during my stay.
I didn’t start general work at first as the first night we were there I managed to trip over a chair at tea-time and sprain my ankle. Instead I did light duties such as ironing where I didn’t have to stand.
I got on well with the other volunteers except for one of the American Jewish volunteers who was truly obnoxious. There were other American Jews there as part of a sort of cultural programme, if I remember rightly, who were really terrific. But the particular bloke I’m talking about was rich and let everyone know it, loud, obnoxious and a real bully. He also drank to excess which was really frowned upon in the kibbutz where drunkenness was not considered acceptable. One of my New Zealand friends ended up going out with him which really surprised me because I thought she had better sense. But then look at me – on and off 13 times with Bill, so I was hardly one to comment!
In the main, though, we worked at picking bananas, grapefruit and oranges, while some of us worked on general duties in the kitchens and canteens of the kibbutz. I was mortified the first day to be sent to sit at the foot of the potato peeling machine, digging the eyes out of the potatoes as they bounced at the end of the mechanical peeling process. I thought this was the worst, most boring job ever until later I was put to knocking the dead flowers off the end of bananas to prepare them for export. I don’t think I have been so bored – then and since – as time seemed to literally creep past. The only really good part I remember is eating a grapefruit from the tree and it was utterly delicious!
On the other hand, the potato peeling seemed quite appealing after my next job turned up – cleaning out the volunteers’ toilets and showers, and then working in the children’s kitchen. I was horrified – I’m a Libran and Librans don’t do crappy (literally) jobs! But as the toilets and showers were cleaned every day and there were only 15 or so volunteers, it turned out to be quite a good job, not least because I didn’t have to get up as early as those working in the orchards, and I’ve never been an early bird at the best of times. I was a bit lost in the children’s kitchen as there really wasn’t a huge lot of work there, mainly washing up the big pots and pans and doing general cleaning.
I was assigned to the orchards one day to pick grapefruit but I was absolutely hopeless. I’m no good in the heat, got a blinding headache, and then got my long hair tangled in the big thorns found in grapefruit trees. My productivity was pathetic. I think the guy in charge of the volunteers’ farm work gave me the thumbs down because I was then put onto serving at tables at lunch. I really enjoyed this, because I got to chat to people, as well as assisting at the conveyor belt which washed all the crockery and cutlery after the meals.
Work on the kibbutz for us volunteers generally used to finish around lunch. I worked later in the day when I was assisting with the washing up on the conveyor belt in the evenings. But mostly we had long, lazy afternoons where we could hitchhike into the nearest town on the coast, Nahariya, or play games like chess or Scrabble, or simply sleep. It was a lovely existence. One day Bill and I climbed a rock face nearby to explore the remains of a Crusader fort. Like as not we ended up in Lebanon which was pretty stupid. We were very close to the border and had army patrols day and night. One night I went to use the toilet which was across the way from our hut and found myself facing two soldiers with their machine guns drawn. Luckily they didn’t shoot on sight! But those same soldiers also took us out for a trip along the border which, again, was really interesting.
As for the goings-on in Israel and the whole Palestinian question, I had no idea about the situation at all. I visited Israel in the wake of the shooting of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in 1972 and was avowedly anti-Palestinian. In fact, in those days, I had very little interest in political affairs at all. I do remember someone discussing Black Saturday and the shooting dead of 13 Irish people by British paramilitary (another, 14th, died a few months later), and my only comment was that the people shouldn’t have been marching if it was illegal. I cringe at this statement when I think of it now, but I was pretty ignorant about the world beyond my own little circle of self-interest in those days.
Later in our stay on the kibbutz we were taken on a tour of Israel by the kibbutz which was absolutely fantastic. We travelled in a coach and we stayed in hostels, doing all the cooking ourselves. We travelled as far as Hebron where we visited a traditional glass factory. I remember the armed soldiers on rooftops but, again, had little idea of why they were there. We later visited the magnificent, historic ruins atop Masada where Herod had lived and where the Zealots had committed mass suicide the day before the Romans invaded their fortress. We climbed up to the fortress from the side where the Romans had built a ramp to reach the top of Masada. It was a hot day, bright sunshine, extremely quiet and the views when we reached the top were just stupendous. You could see in the clear desert air vast swathes of ancient rocks, desert and strange formations. To walk among such ruins was to experience humility at the majesty of the scenery, the ruins and the memory of those who had inhabited this monument and died on its heights.
We climbed down the path to the summit rather than use the cable car which most tourists used to reach the top, and I can remember being incredibly envious of the Swiss in our group who leaped down the rough and stony path down the other side like mountain goats. I’m not particularly daring or adventuresome on paths like this and it was a great relief when we finally reached the base.
We also visited the Dead Sea where I had a grand time floating in the salty water and rinsing off in the Ein Gedi Oasis, and we finally finished up in Jerusalem, if I remember rightly. We stayed in a dormitory and I remember being awakened by the call to prayer from the minarets, an eerie, powerful sound which I’ve loved ever since.
Back on the kibbutz, I was still dithering about what to do when I got back to the UK, until one day Bill came out with a put-down in front of the other volunteers – a harsh criticism which left me humiliated and everyone else around our table very, very embarrassed. I recalled all the other occasions he’d put me down. I remembered a sheet of paper I found once where he’d listed the reasons for and reasons against staying with me. The most hurtful was that I had no imagination. I had little self-confidence in those days and it devastated me. But I didn’t have the confidence to say a final good-bye and strike out on my own.
This last comment on the kibbutz and made very publicly, however, was the nail in the coffin. I didn’t say anything, just decided to keep the peace until I got back to the UK. After we left the kibbutz we travelled down to Eilat on the Red Sea which was another whacko experience. It was real cowboy territory and frontier land – we slept on the beach in sleeping bags but kept our money and passports in our hand as it was common for people to slit the bottom of a bag while you slept and pinch your possessions. You also had to duck in and out of the restroom very fast as there were holes in the walls where Peeping Toms would try to have a look.
When we arrived, there was a bit of a sandstorm so that visibility across to Aqaba in Jordan was reduced to a few metres in front of us. And then the dust cleared and we could see Jordan so clearly, such a surprise as it had been completely obscured the night before.
We eventually started back to Tel Aviv and hitched a lift with a truck driver who was really friendly and helpful. I remember stopping at a cafe in the middle of the Negev Desert and seeing my very first hornets’ nest. These were dirty big hornets and I was very, very cautious as I passed by them to enter the cafe for a quick meal. And as we were driving up the hills from the desert, the truck driver was changing gears constantly and glancing over the road towards the side mirror on my side. I wondered why until Bill told me he was judging his closeness to the edge of the road where it fell away into deep gullies. I went green when I opened the window to look out and realised how much we were relying on the skill of the driver not to go toppling down the steep slope beside the road!
Finally we got back to Tel Aviv and took separate flights back to London. When I did get back, there was Jack waiting for me, I remembered how great he was, and I knew I had to finally quit my relationship with Bill. When I finally met him, I told him it was all over. He was devastated. I was really upset as he was a nice guy but not the one for me.
As for me, my views on Israel and Palestine have change drastically, ever since I joined the Australian Union of Students in 1974 as organiser for Western Australia, and I’ll comment on that in my next post.