Posts Tagged ‘Peking’

I’ve been inspired to write about distant holiday memories by fellow blogger, Jane Fritz, who recently posted a wonderful piece on her travels to the Soviet Union in the 70’s. It got me thinking about the travelling my husband and I did, BC. (Before Children). We didn’t have relaxing holidays in those days – we had experiences. Some of our exploits were endurance tests, like the time we took a tour to a mountainous place called World’s End in Sri Lanka, during monsoon season in a leaky jeep with bald tyres. Another hair-raising adventure occurred slightly nearer to home – in the Adriatic when we took a hydrofoil trip from what was then Yugoslavia to Venice for the day and we hit a storm on the way back. The journey, normally achieved in less than an hour, took more than four in very rough seas. You don’t forget events like that.

However, one of the most memorable weeks away we had was in 1986 when we joined a tour party of around twenty people – Americans and British – travelling to Peking (Beijing) as ‘invited guests’ of the China Travel Service.

We flew from London in early March, armed with two tomes of Sunday newspapers, prepared for the long flight eastwards. Heading into daybreak over the Kun Lun Mountains, on the edge of the Gobi Desert was spectacular. Alighting from the plane in bright sunshine wearing the suggested padded fleece jacket, and full of food that the delightful staff of CAAC airlines plied us with during the never-ending journey, I waddled towards the terminal building like Michelin man.

There was a lot of form filling before we were allowed through customs; our man in Peking, Bill Jones, told us that even the Chinese don’t fully understand them but best fill in as comprehensively as possible!

We were then whisked away by coach with our Chinese guide, Ma Lan, to our newly built hotel, some way out of the city centre and which smelled of mothballs. I remember being impressed by the silk bed covers and amazed that we had a TV and a bathroom. There was a thermos of hot water, a wooden box of tea leaves and two delicate porcelain cups with lids: tea making facilities. Opposite the hotel, people were living in shacks with their animals.

My diary reports that we were allowed exactly half an hour to change traveller’s cheques into tourist Yuan and catch a drink from the bar where the young girl who served us, continually spat into the sink. This was a habit we noticed more and more during our week, although the Chinese were obviously mindful of this practise upsetting their guests as there were plenty of signs around which read “No spittings allowed and no litterings.”

Rush hour in Tiananmen Square

Rush hour in Tiananmen Square

Over the week, Ma Lan kept us to a very tight schedule. She had an itinerary and we were going to stick to it. We were allowed a certain amount of freedom once we were dropped off at Tiananmen Square, full of bicycles, kite fliers and very few cars.  Those we saw tended to be either Mercedes or Toyota’s. Most people were wearing the androgynous blue Mao suits although western fashions were beginning to self-consciously emerge.Ma Lan took us to the main sights in Peking: The Forbidden City, where curious Chinese people latched onto our group. One man told us he had learned his English from the BBC World Service and asked us searching questions – how much did it cost for us to get here; how much did we earn; were we married; how many children did we have; why didn’t we have any children.

Bear one, get one free?

Bear one, get one free?

The implementation  in 1979 of the Chinese one-child policy prompted many people to ask us questions about the size of our families, so these twins, whom I snapped while on the visit to Peking Zoo to see their unproductive Pandas, were their parents prized possession.

We went to the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heavenly Peace; we were shown the Yonghe Buddhist Temple –the only working lamasery in Peking – orange clad monks went about their daily routine apparently unaware of their audience; we visited the Great Hall of the People and saw Mao lying in state.

One evening was spent at the Chinese Theatre – a variety show of magicians, contortionists and trapeze artists after which we ate at the Super Duck Restaurant – a massive building catering for 5000 covers. Our table was on the fourth floor and we had red wine with our Peking Duck dinner.  On the whole, the food during our stay was ok – quite bland and with a high monosodium-glutamate content. We were, however, introduced to the Mac Attack – a concept dreamed up by our American friends who were hallucinating over the lack of fast food. I remember we spent one evening discussing the merits of pepperoni pizzas and chocolate fudge sundaes.

The Great Wall and the Ming Tombs provided another day of sight-seeing as well as the opportunity to mix with curious locals. The part of the Wall we were taken to was very much set up for western tourists, with haphazardly erected t-shirt stalls proclaiming “I’ve Climbed the Great Wall of China.” The climbing we did was more like a gentle, uphill stroll, but at least I can say I‘ve been there.

The mountain resort Summer Palace, Chengde

The mountain resort Summer Palace, Chengde

Part of our week was spent out of Peking, in a town far away to the north, called Chengde.  This was the site of the Emperor’s Summer Palace , (not to be confused with the one in Peking), also known as the Mountain Resort. It took fifteen days to get there travelling by sedan chair in those days. It took us five hours by train from Peking Central Station. Our seats were in ‘soft class.’ The compartments had room for six sleeping passengers. The bunks were covered in white, pleated edged cotton with embroidery. There were lace curtains at the window, in front of which was a tiny table containing china cups and a large thermos for our tea, which was constantly topped up by the young girl in charge of our carriage.The scenery changed dramatically as we headed further north; flat plains soon gave rise to more mountainous terrain. The skies were clear: it became much colder; rivers and even waterfalls were frozen solid. The landscape was much more rural – we saw small peasant farms, the houses and animal shelters were one of the same.

It was the coal smoke that hit us in Chengde, as well as its residual dirt.  The chimneys came out of the buildings sideways, belching out the stuff into the atmosphere and adhering to our clothes. We stayed overnight in the town’s only hotel – more primitive but with very friendly staff. They provided stone hot water bottles for our huge feather beds but no running hot water in the sink. We forewent tea from the ubiquitous thermos the following morning and used the water for washing.

The Emperor’s summer palace could have been the inspiration for the Willow Pattern Plate. It was beautiful – made even more so by the frozen lake and clear blue skies. In addition to this we were taken to Puning Si – the Temple of Universal Peace and the Pu Tuo Zhong Cheng Temple, modelled on the Potala Temple in Lhasa.

Buying chickens in Chengde

Buying chickens in Chengde

Downtown Chengde was a lively market place: live chickens, their feet strung together waiting for the pot; banks of brightly coloured fresh vegetables, tumbling in piles to the dusty street; a road side tailor’s – a production line drew, cut and sewed a pair of trousers in a matter of minutes, the customer waited and walked off, satisfied.

We were encouraged by Ma Lan to off-load our tourist Yuan at Friendship Stores. Set up especially for China’s burgeoning tourist trade, these shops were full of fabulous silks, ‘antique’ artefacts, ivory carvings, scrolls, guide-books and paintings, all at incredibly low prices. A traditional medicine counter selling tablets for ‘herculean potency’ caused great mirth amongst our tour party.  It was a shock to wander off into the Chinese department store a few doors away to discover the shelves there virtually empty.

Our week in Peking and its environs was packed with seeing the sights chosen for us by the tourist service and it was certainly a glimpse into an extraordinary country and its people. I never got rid of the smell of coal smoke from my Arran-knit jumper and the smell of mothballs always takes me right back to that hotel in Peking. Who would have thought that only three years later, the world would be witnessing the terrible events unfolding in Tiananmen Square. Would we have predicted the giant leap forward the country would make in terms of becoming a capitalist society? Maybe, but in so short a time span – I’m not so sure. A few years ago I worked with a young Chinese person, who would have been about three or four in 1989. When I asked him what he knew about the Tiananmen Square massacre his expression was inscrutable. I think the word pretty much sums up the whole fascinating Chinese culture.

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