I had a wonderful surprise recently while rearranging a closet. I stumbled upon several travel diaries. I stopped long enough to read a few pages at random and realized it was like being there all over again.
I decided to transcribe these journals and share them with you in a series of postings. Our first trip to China was in November 1990, over a quarter of a century ago.
Thanks to John, we were able to find some photos from that trip. We will add to future posts in the series.
I would love to have some feedback if you like, don’t like or share other comments.
CHINA & TIBET, November 1990, Part 1
Sunday, Arrived last night.
Our first impression upon landing was a flashback to India. The foggy smoke filled air was heavy. The tarmac seemed to have fewer lights than most Western airports. This was more than compensated by the blast of vapor lights as we approached the arrivals gate.
The terminal was totally new. Sleek, modern, vast. Acres of marble. We zipped through the arrival formalities and out the door to find our car and driver. I must mention the luggage carts. They were the smoothest in the world. They practically floated.
Out the door, the air was crisp and cold. Mercedes, BMWs, Town Cars, SUVs abound. Are we in Beijing? We spot our names and our driver. Off we go! As we get closer to the city center we realize how large and developed Beijing has become. One part Las Vegas, one part New York, not what we expected. We checked in to the Beijing Grand Hotel, a massive soviet style monolith popular with government officials and international visitors. From our balcony we can see the expansive Tiananmen Square. Exhausted and excited, we collapse.
NOTE: This was just one year after the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Tourist travel was still in its infancy in China at this time. There were very few ‘Western Style’ hotels at the time. Each floor in the hotel had a little old man seated in each elevator lobby with the lights off. When the elevator arrived with guests, he would jump up, ask to see the key and promptly turn the lights on until guests were safely in their rooms at which time, the lights were promptly turned off. We were pretty sure the real reason he was posted there was to keep tabs on the ‘foreign’ visitors.
We awoke at 4:30 AM still excited. We could not wait to start our exploration. We were joining a tour in the evening and were looking forward to a day on our own.
Breakfast was an interesting event. The massive room was elaborately decorated with gold and crystal clearly designed to impress. The most unique feature was a grand piano perched above the buffet counters. There, dressed in a formal gown, a fur vest and draped in sparkling bobbles, was the pianist hammering out classical music at 7 AM. Surreal.
After breakfast we decided to just walk and be spontaneous. We headed for the entrance to the Forbidden City at the Tiananmen Gate. It was a cold and clear morning. The rain overnight cleared the smoke and pollution from the air. Everything seemed clean and fresh.
There was Mao, overlooking the center of Beijing. The morning sun cast a wonderful glow against the deep rich red paint of the imperial gate.
Good morning Beijing! Good morning Mao! Good morning China!
We decided to skirt the massive square knowing we would have a detailed look later with our group. Passing the massive government buildings, we realized this was the geographic center of the capital. It was the dividing line between East, West, North and South.
The huge Congress Building looked quite nice in the morning sun. Most of the buildings look nice from a distance but appear utilitarian upon closer scrutiny. We decided to make our way counter clockwise around the perimeter of the square. On the Southwest corner we stumbled upon a commercial area slowly coming to life. Street cleaning, commuters peddling on what appeared to be thousands of bicycles, shops opening one by one. Surprisingly few cars.
We happened upon a supermarket. We charge in to discover odd items at unseemly counters. On closer look, this could be any Western style market anywhere, except for the scores of attendants waiting to serve customers. Imagine that?!
Out the back entrance, we wander into a traditional ‘local market’ with narrow alleys and stalls familiar from all over the world. Wandering and absorbing, we slowly make our way back to our starting point. Time for tea and coffee back at our hotel and a chance to warm up.
Soon we are off again… This time through the streets East of the Forbidden City. Little narrow walkways that branch off alleys and narrow roads. We let our curiosity lead us. The local folks hardly seem to notice us as they go about their morning routines. Fixing a bike here. Delivering goods there. What seems to be constant and daily cleaning. Racking of leaves, sweeping the walks, scrubbing the stoops. It all seems remarkably clean. No trash! No cigarette butts. No graffiti. Nothing! 13 million people all seeming to clean everything constantly.
Soon we are hungry. We walked for hours to feed our senses, now it’s time to feed our stomachs. We suddenly stumble on a small restaurant full of patrons. We peek trough the windows to view plates of steaming goodies. We go in. No one speaks English and there is no English menu. So we wander through the restaurant and point to dishes on other tables. Patrons smile, others laugh. We are rewarded with a superb meal of chicken with red chilies and roasted peanuts and spinach with garlic sauce. Two bottles of beer. All for less than $4.
Rejuvenated, we head for our afternoon destination, a traditional hutong (old neighborhood).
It was worth the walk. We discover a charming street lined with centuries old mansions surrounded by traditional walls. Buildings clustered around a series of courtyards and gated entries. Large stone thresholds and elaborate tiled roofs.
The trees are quickly shedding their leaves in the chilly November winds. Four old temple gates survive in tact, casually dividing this once privileged neighborhood.
Still today, perhaps with a little tarnish, this is both a special neighborhood and widely typical style of homes.
Tired, we decide to try the subway back to the hotel. Two Yuan each and off we go. Crowded but efficient we make it back to the hotel in 20 minutes.
We rest a bit and meet our group in the lobby of the hotel. We spot the same fatigue we experienced only 24 hours earlier. After a boring orientation, we wander into one of the restaurants for a bowl of soup before ending the day.
We feel special to have stolen an extra day on our own. It seems we have a private anchor the others have not yet enjoyed. We decide we like Beijing. We feel surprised and slightly enlightened. It is a big brawny city, alive with energy and life. You can feel it growing, prospering, evolving.
Tomorrow, The Great Wall!