The year 1981 was my first entry into China with a group of 18 travelers anxious to experience what unequivocally would be deemed a new-world adventure. Relatively few were allowed access to this cloistered society and it was any wonder what to expect upon arrival. Excitement filled the air as we disembarked at the tarmac in Beijing, greeted by green clad soldiers who joined us by coach to the main terminal building.
As history would remind us, it was the conclusion of the Opium Wars with China during the mid to late 19th century that first cracked open China’s trade doors by the reigning powers of the world, they being the United States, France, Great Britain and Russia. One very real concern was the breakup of the Chinese mainland and although no treaty to that effect was ever signed, it was in principle a guiding rule among the great powers to keep an equal balance of trade to all open ports of call within China.
A more recent “Open-Door” policy, which the Chinese initiated came from the ruling leader Deng Xiaoping, who in 1978 chose to open the trade doors to the West after decades of being a sequestered society that truly suffered during the frightful years of the “Red Guard” movement in the mid-sixties.
Our clan would be one of the first tourist groups into China, the path first laid by Western officials and exchange visits by the Chinese with various educational institutions within the United States. Arriving at the immigration counter, we were single-filed according to the name list on the official visa entry permit, the green clad soldiers now pacing the floor, not a smile on their faces. It seemed forever that the immigration official assigned our group reviewed the passports and scanned the faces of the entering foreigners, mostly elderly and seemingly little threat to the Motherland. The custom officials were as precise and even more so inquisitive about the variety of personal goods each traveler carried in their luggage, from hair dryers to lotions, fancy clothing to pocket radios. Each piece of luggage, hand-carry and parcel was meticulously examined, my anxiety rising to the fore in anticipation that a Bible should surface; a Time magazine or two already confiscated. The search complete, we were ushered through to the arrival hall and greeted by our guide, outfitted in a blue-colored Mao jacket and matching trousers, the fashion design to be worn by the vast majority of Chinese. A perfunctory look upon her face, she escorted us to our blue and white van, listing heavily to the left, which we learned would be our carriage to the Great Wall. As a former member of the “Red Guard” her family name was Wang Li, her chosen name Vivian, which we soon thereafter dubbed “Sunshine”. Our luggage, now literally being thrown into an open truck was meant for arrival at the Guest House later that night.
China in the early years challenged the most experienced of travelers.
First impressions, long remembered, were how few private vehicles were on the roadway, its two lanes filled with bicyclists and occasional drab, green colored military vehicles. Rising dust from the narrow lanes that wound their way through what appeared as roadside villages filtered the setting sun as we made passage toward Beijing. Our group was assigned the Daioyutai Guest House, a compilation of stately buildings reserved for visiting dignitaries. One nearby housed Muammar Gaddafi, former leader of Libya. In these early days of tourism, luxury-styled tour companies were offered accommodations used for heads of State simply because they were willing to pay for the privilege and because the Chinese had little infrastructure to accommodate newly arriving tourists. Foreign hoteliers grasped the opportunity and began a massive building effort. The Chinese, visiting both the United States and Europe simply would choose a favored property and have the exact same structure created in China, bringing over the entire staff to train their countrymen in the art of servicing the tourist industry. Considering that the local populace lived their lives on dirt floors, used charcoal for cooking and heating, and had little that resembled a modern amenity, the learning curve was steep. Visiting China 4 – 5 times each of those early years, the first known cloth table napkin to appear at mealtime was at the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel in Xian in 1985. It was, in fact, a time for celebration.
Guest House dining in the early years was quite the event for those in attendance. The head of the State run facility would be present at dinner with continual stand up toasts to the developing friendship between the United States and China. As the representative of the group, I was seated between our host and the translator, which led to a sharing of far too much Moutai ( a sorghum based liquor ). The dual toasting was accompanied by the tasting of their specialty appetizers, the kinds of which had you accepting as courtesy dictated, however, most concerned that your host might offer seconds. The baby sparrow fetus, marinated in soy sauce I think the most trying of the lot. I care not recall how many of those were ingested on behalf of international politic.
Touring China those years would find some 30 or more local residents gathering at the coach door to view the blue eyes, the variety of hair colors, and fashions not found anywhere in China. Instant photos from the Kodak camera astonished both children and elders. Over all those early years of travel, one fond memory was watching two travelers on tour; one a tall heavy set Texan and the other a thin Californian. Tex would begin chewing bubble gum, which was non-existent in China, and Walter, standing beside him would pump his arm. The harder he pumped, the larger grew the bubble until it burst. There would be a circle of wide-eyed Chinese, young and old who broke into laughter. The journey those years was no doubt difficult, yet the seemingly endless variety of wonders, be they manmade treasures or simply the fortitude of a populace that each day faced impoverishment as a norm, yet had a welcoming smile for the newfound travelers, made the experience so worthwhile.
A rather astonishing leap forward into the 21st century.
Today’s China has its own amazing experiences and an even greater number of sites open to visiting travelers. One of the most notable accomplishments over the past three decades has been the vast improvement in infrastructure. Be it accommodations, vehicles used for transportation, the quality of restaurants, the choice of vessel on the Yangtze, the upgrading of both airports and airlines, and the roadways between sites, it has been a remarkable transformation. Today’s visitor will find all of the centuries-old treasures, at times in stark contrast to modern skylines of the larger cities, a comfort level simply unavailable in past years, and a magnificence in cuisine that would challenge any of the fine dining restaurants the world over. Travel to China in the early days was an adventure, often quite challenging. The comfort and amenities now available make the journey a sheer delight. Visiting the smaller cities and shore excursions while on the Yangtze River cruise, provides an opportunity to have a glimpse of what Old China might have looked like decades ago, although the picture is fading.
The airline carriers have replaced all of the Soviet built aircraft with a modern fleet of jetliners, the cruise ships on the Yangtze boast comfortable quarters with balcony and for those seeking unique settings, there is Kashgar, Tibet and Mongolia to consider. Even in those remote areas, the changes would astonish those who traveled when the door first opened.
When it comes time to revisit, for what will seem like the first time or never having visited China, to now consider a visit this remarkably complex nation, journey there with a company that has been sending travelers for the past 28 years. With private car, private driver, private guide, accommodation, daily breakfast and lunch, it comes at a surprisingly affordable cost.