CHINA NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 1979
This needs a prologue. My trip to China was an absolute mind bending experience. I kept a diary at the time, that was already a habit. Later I sent it to one of my co-travelers so that he could use it to help identify and label his photographs. The diary never came back. I saw the fellow at a reunion and he assured me that it had been sent. So I'm left now to look at my pictures and search my memory to record the trip. I can't recreate it.
Prologue After the trip to Portugal, I made some small effort to keep in touch with Nancy Bishop who had organized the trip. At one point I called her to try to arrange lunch. "Oh no," she replied, "I'm so busy I can't make lunch. Would you like to go to China instead?" Well, there was no decision. It had been mentioned in Portugal as a far-off dream. This was real and money and time or no, I was going. My deposit went off that afternoon. The group was a Wellesley event again; despite the school ties to Mme. Chiang Kai-Shek, we were among the early tourist groups to get in.
November 24 and 25.1979 Friday after Thanksgiving. Flew off via Pan Am from Kennedy to San Francisco to Hong Kong. Checking in at San Francisco, they even asked my weight. About five people were bumped from the flight due to weight restrictions. (Not individual, but for the plane!) The trans-Pacific trip was a stretch for standard 747s. Endless flying. Read several of the books I'd brought along with the result that I was stuck for the next three weeks with only one book to carry me through -- Far Pavilions which I loathed. Lesson learned. Somewhere along the flight I ate some shrimp cocktail. More on that later. Finally arrived in Hong Kong late in the evening and bussed to our standard hotel on the Hong Kong side. I wonder now if the harbor tunnel was open. We certainly didn't ferry.
November 25 Spent the day on the usual Hong Kong city tour. We went up the Peak and I was stunned by the view -- right out of a James Bond movie -- and the resemblance to New York. Crystal clear day. We bussed out to Repulse Bay and walked on the beach. I was stunned by how filthy the beach was. Littered with McDonald's wrappers. But I waded in the water anyway. The hotel was closed by then and in line to be demolished. One of the ladies on the trip had been married in the Repulse Bay hotel sometime in the 20s. She'd gone out to China to teach English and had met an American diplomat there who she married. In Peking she was able to track down and get together with some of her Chinese teaching friends and colleagues. All fifty years and more ago. In the evening we bussed back to have dinner at one of the floating restaurants, the Sea Palace. Simply immense and a good meal even with the tourist trap atmosphere. Back to the hotel and I felt a bit queasy on the bus. Harbinger of things to come.
November 26 During the night I went from queasy to violently ill. Losing it at both ends as they say. It got bad enough so the Elaine Taggart (my roommate and a friend from the Portugal trip) ended up getting the hotel doctor to come. We also found that someone else in the group had been attacked by a tainted something. We later came to the conclusion that it was Pan Am's shrimp. A pox on them. The doctor was Chinese, English-speaking and sympathetic. I was very sick, I must not get dehydrated, if I did I'd have to go into the hospital. Wait a minute! I've got my vacation and my life savings tied to a group visa into China leaving in the morning. Oh no. Oh yes. In the end he gave me a shot of something that was probably opium based (I say that not because it blissed me out, but it effectively stopped the intestinal system a less recreationally important effect) and a generous supply of Lomotil. I collapsed for a couple of hours sleep. Up, packed and out of the room at some ungodly hour in the morning. I went into the dining room, but breakfast was not to be thought of. Then we bussed to the train station and got on a train headed for the border. I slept as best I could. Out at Lo Wu, stand in line to check out of Hong Kong, then walk across a bridge in no man's land to check into the People's Republic of China. Another wait in a gray, cinderblock sort of room. I was drained and just concentrated on staying on my feet. Tourists were herded off to a dining room for lunch. I hoped to get down rice and tea, but couldn't. Had to use the bathroom and was appalled to be introduced to China- style plumbing, a fixture in the grubby floor and iffy water supply. We were then loaded on the train and headed off for Quangchou (Canton). Then on to a bus to the airport. A long wait at the airport and I remember sleeping again in classic airport discomfort. Flight to Peking. I slept. Then endless bus ride into the city and our hotel. To the whining dismay of some of the Wellesley contingent, we were not at the Peking Hotel -- classic colonial outpost -- but at another hotel. This too was an immense, dark and dusty pile. We got in around nine o'clock and I fell into bed. Elaine, bless her heart prowled all over the hotel and managed to get me some dry toast and tea. First and only sustenance I could manage.
November 27 No way was I going to miss anything, so even though I was wiped out, I headed out with the group on the day's excursion. Train through the countryside. Views of remnants of the Great Wall from the train windows. Barren November landscape. Abrupt hills. Shockingly primitive way of life occasionally visible: building a house with bamboo scaffolding and horse and cart to bring the bricks. Then a walk of maybe a quarter of a mile up a road to the restored and complete section of the Wall. Winding up on either side like the spines on a dragon's back. Staggering steep slopes on either side. You climb up a tower, then come out onto the top of the Wall. It really is like a wide promenade, sometimes with steps, climbing up (how can it always be up?) punctuated with guard towers every few hundred yards. No sense of orientation. I couldn't tell you for sure which was north or south or in or out. Hard to believe that it could be built. Almost possible to believe that one can see the scar of the Wall from space. Everything it should be. Once torn away, we bussed to the Ming Tombs, eating a box lunch along the way. Well the group did. It wasn't the sort of stuff I'd eat when healthy -- cold spam sandwich, hardboiled egg. The Tombs were a disappointment. Buses and fumes around. All we were able to see was the road lined with the paired animals. We had some fun riding the stone horses and so on, but whatever the big deal was supposed to be, we didn't see. Back to Peking in fading light to see the Temple of Heaven. Would have loved more time. There's a reason why you see the buildings in every Chinese restaurant in New York. Memorable chance to see the sun set into the pollution of Peking, dropping into the smog layer a goodly distance above the horizon.
November 28 Morning at Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. The square is one of the largest, most empty spaces on earth. It's so large, that it loses the sense of unity, of wholeness. Even Red Square, huge though it is, seems like a unit. Tianamen is more like a bad case of urban renewal. No traffic allowed in the square itself, just visitors. And they were swallowed up by the emptiness. Mao's tomb (We never got there; I think it was only open on certain days.) at one end facing the wall and gate of the Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People on the far long side. A monument of some sort in the center. Also if I remember right, a remaining and restored gate from the city walls standing behind Mao's tomb. Much later I read that most of the walls and gates had been demolished during the Cultural Revolution. Closer to the time of my trip than I ever knew at the time. We all blindly believed that that period had been one of essentially the sixties and that by the time Nixon and co. opened China in 1974 life was back to repressed normal. Little did I, at least, know. A social event of some note was Elaine's and my "defection" as it was dubbed from the Wellesley contingent to the other half of our group. We'd been paired with a group from Chicago and they turned out to be infinitely more congenial than the whiners from Wellesley. Crystal clear and cold, see your breath day. The Forbidden City was a set of nested courtyards and court buildings. Each more elaborate. Each cold and dark. No lighting or exhibition areas. Everywhere we were stared at by the khaki or blue clad Chinese. The language and other barriers too strong to cross. Stares of amazement more than curiosity. Everyone round from the layers of clothes piled on to keep warm. Always the same drab colors and shapes. Afternoon we went out to the Summer Palace where kids were ice-skating. Figures. Long walk along the garishly restored arcade then arriving at the Marble Boat. Dingy. A Kodak stand with dress-up imperial costumes. Driving around on the main streets was eerily like Moscow. Wide-open streets with few cars, masses of basic black bicycles, gray blocky building and apartments built old. Lifeless. Everyone in the group down with the Peking cold and cough. Western remedies do little. Those who try native remedies do better. I seem to be immune. Maybe dysentery kills colds. At some point we went out for Peking duck in Peking. I remember the dessert. Fruit pieces dipped in melted sugar then ice water, which crystallized the sugar. An absolute mess to eat with strands of caramel draped all over the table, but delicious.
November 29 On by plane to Hangzhou. No assigned seating on the plane. No safety announcements. Faster, steeper landings than are common on commercial flights at home. Ensconced in the hotel with a view of West Lake. A bit of exploring around the area: a temple next door and a bookstall where I bought a map of the world with China in the center. Wooden drawers and shelves behind a counter. Going back to the hotel with a Chinese kid from Chicago we were accosted as we came up the driveway by soldier with a rifle who appeared from nowhere. Was there to stop the locals from venturing near the hotel. As soon as he realized that these were tourists, he vanished back out of sight.
November 30 Exploring Hangzhou. Climbed the Pagoda of the Six Harmonies. Visited a Buddhist temple with towering gold statue. Facing hillside outside was covered with various carved Buddhas. While clambering around, I came across an artist selling works of calligraphy done on newsprint. For something like two cents, I bought one that turned out later to be illustrated characters standing for singing and dancing. And it just happened to be the one I liked. Everyone was taken with it and later the guide went back and arranged to get many others for the group. But I had mine on my own. We took a sightseeing cruise on West Lake and again the difference between our treatment and that of the Chinese visitors was striking. They were crammed into a wooden boat that looked like an oversized rowboat with an outboard. We had a typical motorboat for our tour around the islands, shrines, and vistas. Beautiful photo opportunities. Tea at an unheated teahouse in a park. One of the group, Fred Rose, borrowed a bike and took a few spins around. Evening at a performance of the opera. Unheated theater, hardwood benches, bare concrete floor on which the locals practiced their already observed habit of spitting. Lights up in the auditorium and a constant stream of unrestrained chatter in the audience. An act was all the tourists got -- or could stand.
December1 Morning visit to a tea farm. A model tea farm. The usual BI (brief introduction) and tea followed by a tour of the fields. Off-season presumably. Almost deserted. The living quarters were new some still under construction, bare and unheated, but neat. Farm work like carrying off brush for firewood or whatever is done by hand. A melt the heart visit to the local kindergarten. This had to be a regular stop for tourists for the kids were rehearsed with a song or two, but they were cute. We peeked in the dorm room where the little ones were stacked in rows on the beds for a nap. Everything spookily orderly. Very little in the way of material things around to mess up too. Also a visit to a fan factory. Again, no heat, little light. Workers in coats and hats sitting by windows assembling or painting fans by hand. Outside, groups of blue and green-coated bicyclists watching us. Later on to Suzhou by train. Always traveling between cities after dark. Everyone homesick. One of the group had a small short-wave radio and we tried hungrily throughout the trip to pull in Voice of America. When we left home, the hostages had just recently been taken at the embassy in Iran. We didn't have any idea how the world was reacting, or what the U.S. might or might not do in retaliation. No news, no radio, no newspapers once out of Hong Kong. December 2 In Suzhou, visits to all the gardens. Even in November. Startling to see nothing from the outside but a smooth whitewashed wall. Then inside, through a series of rooms and courtyards, finding extensive gardens that go on and on. Every outlook planned and contrived. Grey and chilly weather. Also a walk along the Grand Canal. Traffic included hand-poled wooden boats as well as slightly more elaborate craft. Then a visit to a silk factory. Primitive wooden looms. Most of the silk garish and patterned, probably intended for the Asian market, but some exquisite. Traffic on the many canals that cut through Suzhou primitive living conditions were also visible as you looked at the homes on the canals. December 3 More gardens. A visit to Tiger Hill, a pagoda in a park outside town. We heard what sounded a lot like artillery practice. (Even to those in the group who'd had war experience.) Oh no, somewhere nearby they're blasting for a new road. No way. A very chilling feeling. Dinner that night was one of the most delicate and divine imaginable. The restaurant was called the Pine and Crane. Upstairs over a concrete and plastic local eatery. Cold, poorly lighted room, bare floor. Round table with white tablecloths. Endless courses of subtle food presented with royal care. Appetizers laid out on platters in the shape and colors of a butterfly. Soup with a meringue duck floating in each cup. Flavors and textures that mix and match throughout the entire meal. December 4 Another garden. Enough. Street scenes full of blue jackets and caps, black bicycles, and curious faces. Women washing and drawing water on the street corner. Kids handled in Chinese style: instead of diapers, they just slit the pants from front to back. When it's time to go, the kid just squats or is held and the business is done. At a temple, Fred Rose got out his Polaroid and was indeed swamped by Chinese who'd never seen such a thing. It was like a rock star being mobbed. Train to Shanghai. December 5 Shanghai is huge and wonderful. We stayed at the Peace Hotel, another classic. Elaine and I had an enormous room at the end of an endless hallway. First an entry room, then a huge room with two beds 'way over there. A curtained alcove for the maid. A trunk room and a marble bath. All dingy and dusty to be sure, and no view, but who cares? We'd all been clamoring for an acupuncture demonstration and someone, mistaking the PhDs in our group for medical doctors, arranged a hospital tour. After the BI, we were escorted in smaller groups upstairs where we did indeed get a demonstration. We put on robes and masks and then, bring your camera please, we were taken into the operating rooms where we saw several operations underway. All using acupuncture presumably. One thyroid procedure, one hysterectomy. All the patients looking calm and not at all disturbed by this gang of ugly American tourists swarming around. (Maybe they were drugged!) I watched for a bit, but then got faint which caused a huge stir among the staff. I just went into the dressing room and sat down, but they were worried so they kept sending anxious emissaries in to me, none of whom spoke English. But I got my color back and they finally relaxed. The rest of the hospital tour was fascinating. The building was unheated, the temperature was probably in the fifties at best, the patients were in bed with their hats and coats on, the windows were wide open, and people were coming in sick and going home well. If I remember right, the hospital specialized in reconstructive surgery for burn patients. In the afternoon, Elaine and Fred and I bailed out of the group and took a boat ride up the Huang Po River. We got the boat right along the waterfront and boarding by crossing through two boats moored in close until we got to the one on the outside. All manner of boats on the river. Ocean going ships and wooden sampans. Pollution over the city was appalling, a purplish brown blanket. Evening performance by a troupe of acrobats. Stunning flexibility and balance.
December 6 Tour of the Pumpkin Lane New Workers' Residential Area. Concrete public housing. Laundry hanging everywhere on poles. Tour came complete with an exhibit of the bamboo and reed mat shacks the people lived in before the Liberation. (Russia had a revolution, Portugal had an earthquake, and China had a Liberation.) Afternoon visit to a Children's Palace. Sort of a Y. We saw kids practicing traditional musical instruments, taking ballet classes, puppeting, and singing. In spite of the knowledge that this was a routine tourist stop, it made me cry to here Jingle Bells in Chinese. Walking along the riverfront in the evenings really did introduce us to that group of privileged city dwellers who were learning English from the BBC and were willing to risk talking to tourists in the dark. Young men mostly. One conversation was with a guy from Texas (Diboll) who had a huge house to himself. Describe it. Well downstairs there's the living room (nods) then the dining room (just for eating?) then the den (what's that? Another living room.) And a kitchen and then upstairs ... They couldn't conceive that this could all be for one solitary person.
December 7 Fly to Canton. City tour left me absolutely cold and without any impression of the city whatever. As a group we did take a boat tour on the Pearl River. Flat after Shanghai. Dinner was memorable for introducing us to a new aspect of Chinese cuisine. The food throughout the tour had been pretty blah, so when we hit a tasty meat dish at dinner, we all dug in for seconds and thirds. It wasn't great, just much better than anything we'd eaten for two and a half weeks. When we asked the guide what we'd be eating, she replied, "Dog."
December 8 Unexpected treat. Instead of staying in Canton, we were able to go out to a resort newly open to tourists after being a Party vacation spot. On the way we stopped in Foshan to visit a ceramics factory -- more handicraft by hand -- and the most ornate temple imaginable. Every millimeter covered with carving and figures. Outside bought the sweetest small bananas at a people's market. Piles of vegetables on tarps at a street corner. Temperature now spring like. Long bus trip to Seven Star Crag. Everyone off the bus at a ferry. Seven Star Crag is a Chinese landscape come to life. Impossibly steep mountains rising out of lake and mist. Grand hotel with balconies, mosquito netting, rusty and unreliable plumbing, and atmosphere. Wandering around the area was fun. The local Chinese had not seen Westerners in at least forty years. Farming and fishing all around.
December 9 Up for sunrise in heavy fog. Magic as the run sun comes up over the lake. Boat tour for the non-claustrophobic through a series of caves in and under the mountains. Boats were flat bottomed and wooden, propelled by hand. Then a strenuous and hot climb up to the top of one of the peaks for the view of the whole "park". Mountains rising out of the lake to form islands, bridges and pagodas winding all around, lanes lined with trees crossing the lake like causeways. A heated ping pong game back at the hotel between Fred (director of an arts center in Cleveland) and Belle Horowitz (Citibanker.) But less heated than the competition between Belle and me for Fred. No conclusion in PRC. Back to Canton for final day and a farewell dinner to close out the trip. Restaurant meal with guides and local tourist officials. Toasting with mao tai, a lethal alcohol of 150 proof. Really. The first round was as might be expected. "I'd like to offer a toast to eternal friendship between the peoples of the two great countries of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China." Down goes the skin removing shot. Next toast, "I'd like to toast the people of our two great countries." Down goes another shot. Then, "I'd like to toast." I put down seven and walked out of the restaurant only on the strength of very conscious concentration on my balance and my feet. Back at the hotel, the whirlies hit, but I managed to behave myself when Fred came by to chitchat with Elaine and me, and I didn't pass out into bed until he was gone.
December10 -11 World-class hangover. Served me right. Up at 5:30 to pack, eat breakfast (no thanks) and be on the bus. Train back to Lo Wu and then the walk across the bridge into Hong Kong. Moving. Hotel this time on the Kowloon side, along Stanley Road. I liked Hong Kong a lot better on this viewing. Ran around all the shops doing Christmas shopping amid the Chinese-eyed Santa Clauses and the 90-degree heat. Breathless. After nearly three weeks of poor Chinese food, all I wanted was a burger and fries. At McDonald's. Later, a small group dinner at Pierrot at the top of the Mandarin. We passed up the best Chinese food city in the world for mediocre French. Although I was completely recovered from my bout with tourista, China was no place to plump up. As I was dressing to go to Pierrot I pulled on my slinky black pants and reached for the dress-up top. My pants fell off to the floor. Back in New York, I weighed in at 112, a good twelve or so pounds underweight.
December 12 How come it takes two days to fly to Hong Kong and only five hours to fly home? Mummy and Daddy came down from Springfield to pick me up at Kennedy, feed me an Italian meal, and drive home again.
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