The biggest trip that I made to China, in March 1988, on today's eyes, has the virtue of having discovered a country that had not yet been crossed by the wave of modernism and the economic and tourism openness. China was still closed behind the wall.
The departure of the trip soon marked the way had to be seen: "man man", which translated from Cantonese means "slowly", "calmly". Whith patience, lots of patience, or it wasn't a visit to China ...
Nothing was booked. Only the boat departing from Macau to Guangzhou.
A guide and nothing more.
China was implementing in the last decade the motto: "a regime, two systems" and was taking the first steps in tourism.
The trips to China were an adventure, with permanent improvisations and learning. The match was in the "inner harbor" of Macau.
We should have arrived an hour ago. It was at the last minute. The car was badly parked and we must race to the boat.
We were the last to enter and seconds later the boat left. At evening.
By gestures, they indicated our room. After all it was busy. Some men sitting in bed talking and other standing. The boat employee sent them out and he was away, also.
The room was to forget. I had a cubicle, (an optimistic version it would be the bathroom). The bed clothes were all grimy, a table and lamps. The metal structure was painted long time ago. We lay in dresses and we sleep just a litlle. The boat was huge noise.
The trip by the Pearl River Delta took all night. With many jolts and engine noise. At the time there were no roads that allow a quick trip. Or turbo jets. The most trivial was the boat that was crossing at night to Guangzhou.
The arrival was early. Around 6 am but the border only opens at 7 am. Breakfast was improvised, a biscuits and tea.
The waiting time in the boat was amazing. Some passengers were waiting leaning to the vessel. Others, begun to prepare the bag for output. The luggage were dozens of huge plastic bags, refrigerators, television sets, hi-fi equipment. Many went shopping to Macau or Hong Kong, where the products are cheaper and then take all by boat to China.
For a moment I thought it would be for use in their homes. Later, with other visits to China, I was more convinced that the devices are for parallel trade.
It was easy to cross the border. The visas were obtained in Macau.
Given its proximity to Macau and Hong Kong (is 120 km) Guangzhou was one of the most developed cities in China. Also the most populous. However, the atmosphere was calm. At least it was so in 1988. Chineses (here are mostly of ethnic group Han) are very curious. During the disembarkation and the visit to the city they look carefully for us. For a long time. Then, if they are accompanied, make a dialogue and laugh.
The locals already were familiar with Westerners and the curiosity wasn't so big. In other regions the curiosity had not limited. They touch, stir in clothes, on our skin, hair. Wretches of blonde women. We had this experience in Zhengzhou.
A light rain was the biggest hassle in Guangzhou. We went through several streets of the city, very green, with wide avenues. The main means of transportation was the bicycle. There were also many motorbikes, cars and trucks but the traffic did not cause long queues. Even we not felt the pollution.
One of the visits was to Yuexiu Park. A large green space with the statue of five goats. As we arrived too early we saw locals doing Tai Chi on parks and several streets with green spaces.
Another must visit is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, outside a garden very well maintained.
In front we have the main building, with several tens of meters high and with typical Chinese architecture. It was built in 1929 and restored a decade after our visit in 1998.
Sun Yat-sen is a reference to the Chinese. One of the main figures of 20th century and is considered the "father" of Republican China. In Macau there is also a memorial house that evokes the passage of Sun Yat-sen in the territory.
Inside the memorial, in Guangzhou, there are also objects and matching of Sun Yat-sen.
With misty day, a serene environment and people were burning of incenses in the family temple Chen, we enter into another world.
Chinese writing, rituals, inscriptions ... we didn't understand the messages that were in the pagoda but we understand the meaning.
Offers, dedication, memory, protection. These are some of the reasons why people with humble air and concentrated to kneel in front of the altar. The smoke, the colors with strong gold and the dominant red help give a gathering environment.
The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees is different.
The environment is not only gathering, is the pageantry of the Buddhist pagoda architecture, also. The tallest building, Hua (Flower) pagoda has nine floors and the predominant colors are red and white.
The temple is very old. The last reconstruction dates from the beginning of the XX century and is one of the favorite places for Chinese burn incenses in the Chinese New Year and the lantern festival. As in many other places in China, locasl believe that this ritual gives them luck.
Inside are some Buddhist relics and two huge Buddhas made of copper.
At this time in 1988, traveling in China was not easy. Long distances without quick transport structures. The best was the plane, but, it was impossible to improvise, without booking in advance.
The first experience was soon in Guangzhou. The system was very confusing. Make reservations by phone was impossible. In addition to the language problem, the capacity to solve the requests were almost nil. Of the two, one. Or in a CAAC office, China International Airlines Company, (three months later, by government decision, the company was divided into several companies) or directly at the airport. Here, it was fun .... Early morning wondered for availability. Yes, there were tickets but they only sold near the flight. As the flight was at 16h, we had to be at 14h on-site office to buy the tickets. We were the first in the waiting row, long time before 14h. However, when reopening, they said the tickets were sell out. Why? How was it? Of course they did not understand anything. With the louder voice I could tell my irritation but, the result was the same. They turned back. If much of the dialogue was in a gestural manner, this gesture said it all.
More hours of waiting, sometimes for the next day and not be sure if we could access to the flight. This situation was repeated. I changed my strategy. At first contact i insisted to the officer to see the passport. The answer was sometinhig like: "No need, later, see on clock, at this hour" I insisted: "No, please, see if it's ok". He pushed the passport to their hand. Inside were dollars. I began to have tickets!
Because of these mishaps we only arrived in Guilin in the evening of the next day. Again, rain. Fog, cold weather, wooden houses in dark streets and mud.
Few people spoke English. We were a little lost, without references at night and our savior was a young man. It belonged to a local organization and helped foreigners. He recommended Guilin Osmanthus Hotel. It was a double recommendation, because we must asks to stay in the modern part of the hotel. The price was the same and the conditions were better. So it was.
With the young company we solve the problem the first night. This part of the story does not end without a detail that ashamed me. I had not the slightest idea of the money/coin value. The currency was the renminbi (people's money) and it was divided into yuans. I had several in my pocket. I took one or two coins and I offered to the young man. The hotel employees smiled the young man went away, perhaps desolate and rightly so. The tip was a pittance.
With the experience of passing through the streets of Guilin looking for a hotel at night, we stay inside the hotel. Dinner and prepare the following trip: the descent of the Li River to Yahngshuo.
Many years later and with some frequency, I still remember this trip on Li River. Existential and confrontational memories, between the stress of large cities, cosmopolitanism and the simple life, calm, of those people.
The boat was almost full. The entrance was on a wooden pier, the vessel should take about 30 passengers. Several tables for four people next to the gangway.
We had the company of a couple of Taiwan. Beijing and Taipei authorities were, at this time, living a conciliation attempt to stage dialogue between China "mother" and desavinda island. In this environment of openness, some people from Taiwan traveled to China by Hong Kong. Discovering family branches and origins. These were the main objectives. In the case of our neighbors, they used the opportunity to know one of the most famous destinations in southern China.
The Li River descent is fantastic. Are just over 80 km between Guilin and Yahngshuo and the journey took about five hours.
In the entrance piers were bauble vendors, they approached the boat on bamboo rafts. Along the way this type of transport was usual. Sometimes they are fishermen, others transports vegetables. A little further on the riverbank, a woman was washing some agricultural products. People and animals were farming.
A great silence, as the line of sight.
In the early part, the river stretches for flatter areas. A house, far away, with a golden star. The building is run down, maybe abandoned. A few kilometers further, the river is a strait between two steep mountains. They are limestone towers. Some isolated, others with a form of mountain range.
It is not clear the definition of the mountain ranges.
One after other and fog did everything undefined. The forms, the light and at the end of the day the sky was gaining various colors.
In contrast to the green that rises the speckled white limestone hills.
Lunch was fresh fish. Fished in the river during the trip. The meal was quickly. The feelings were directed to Li and mountains. Tourists were taking photos, looking for the best prospects. To record the landscape. In fact, it wasn't necessaray because it's was unforgettable.
Arrival in Yangshuo was mid-afternoon. Drizzling and the task was to find accommodation. Yangshuo was a small village, with old houses and narrow streets.
On the main road, the west street, signs in Mandarin and English announced small hostel or rooms with a not attractive appearance. By wthat i saw on the streets I could tell that Yangshuo was preferred by backpackers. According to reports, the "fault" was the Lonely Planet.
At the end of the street a man showed us a place surrounded by a wall and a large wooden door. We were met by a woman, she took us to a small house and left a note with the price. We saty but we never saw her again. The next day, as she did not appear, we left the money and made the "check out". Inside the house was a large bed, clean clothes and a huge ceiling musketeer. Next door, a table with a machine of boiling water and two cups. Good, we could make tea.
We returned to the center of the village. The route was, again, the West Street where we could see many young Westerners. They were just walk or shopping on street vendors.
Then we went to the pier.
Only the sound of running water from a small waterfall. Nothing else. Downstairs, next to the water, was an old man, plucking a chicken. He was with legs bent, in a typical Chinese position. With the slightly curved body, the chicken placed in water. The water helped clean the feathers. A few seconds later he withdrew the animal and returned to pluck. A little more... calmly, with all the patience in the world, the Chinese patience.
Returning to the center, the way was made by a route overlooking a lake. On the other side, some houses, one or two floors reflected in the water. Behind, the scene was completely with the limestone formations that surround the city. As if they were a protective ring.
Along the way we shopped for dinner and breakfast, essentially fruit.
Next day, after breakfast with tea, biscuits and fruit, we follow to the bus station. We choose this way to return to Guilin. Next to the stop, after buying the tickets, i took a photograph of a child. The mother was all smiles and after the click came to me extended the hand.
Despite the permanent presence of foreign in this region, locals manifest curiosity. Along the way the curiosity grew with those who were entering. Blatantly looked at us, they spoke between them and gave loud guffaws. Why? I never know!
The trip was in a local bus. Today there are several connections per day. It was not the case at the time. There was no transportation for tourists. Only the old bus that fled from the main road and went through several locations in the interior. Many trucks on the road, delayed the trip. It was also common to see sidecars and bicycles. Especially near Guilin. The vans and trucks have chains between the wheels. In the event of a collision with a bicycle it avoid trampling.
We reached Guilin three hours later.
New saga at the airport. Almost all the day to get a ticket!
The destination was Xian. Only through “passport technique” we could get tickets.
The departure was at night.
Our company on the plane was an American, a travel agent in the US, that was been invited by the Chinese government to stimulate tourism and to form travel programs. She was disconcerted – “ How can these people raise tourism with some quality with this clutter!” Neither the contacts promised by the government appear. In Guilin airport was to be received by an official travel agent. She waited hours and nothing. She had to disentangle and, only in the hotel, long time after, she was approached by a man who asked her lots of excuses. Already in another city she had the same situation. Now she was to see what was going to happen in Xian.
It was the US woman who recommended us (with same value that had sold her) the People's Hotel. Today, it is completely redesigned, belongs to an international chain and is the Sofitel Legend Peoples Grand Hotel Xian.
It was built on the “friendship time” between Chinese and Russian, it had an architecture with French traits and Sino-Soviet. The forefront had six floors, in stone, with wide columns and a sumptuous entrance. Inside the receptionist said us that they are almost full. They had free only a suite. No turning back, we had to accept.
We went to the third or fourth floor.
The hotel was empty and our suite had a full roof moisture and plaster to fall. After a complaint and new insistence, they moved us to another suite. Room with a carpet, a normal bed and a smaller adjoining room with normal furniture. This was the suite. Nothing compared to the quality and refinement of today's Sofitel that can be seen in these photos.
Maybe it will before 10pm, more or less ... We decided dinner at hotel. At this time the service was only in one restaurant. We had to take a huge turn. After all, the restaurant was near a disco. The menu was limited to one or two dishes. They took an eternity. There were no more customers. The disco was in in silence with only two Chinese women with bright dresses, glued to the body.
Next day we saw the US woman walking in the hotel lobby, smiling and accompanied by a Chinese. After all, things were already going well.
We went with a guide to the museum of terracotta warriors. It is 35 km far from the city.
On the way we stop in a brickyard, to see craftsmen working the terracotta. A clay mass, in the case of zone Xian, instead of natural orange, has a dark gray color similar to the color that was given to the warriors. They are small brickworks, still working in a rudimentary way, to small businesses in the city and in particular for tourists. Craftsmen produce many replicas of ancient coins and statues of warriors of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
The first emperor Qin mausoleum and the pavilion with thousands of warriors were already quite different. They were imposing. It is the postcard of Xian and one of the main tourist attractions of China. The archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage
It is fascinating to enter in the hall and look to six thousand statues. All aligned in the ditches, and surrounded by land. They look to front, to you. As if they were vigilant. Fulfilling the original function, protect the emperor, whose mausoleum is just over one kilometer. The statues were of warriors, horses and chariots.
Next door there was a museum where some of these materials can be seen in detail and with a brief description. The history, the materials, how the warriors ere discovery... lots of information to understand better the historic place where we are.
Abroad, access to the pavilion, there was a wide street full of street vendors.
Our visit began midmorning. Few people there.
I took a camcorder Panasonic NV-M5 (i see that now is a museum piece) and it was huge. I put the camera on my shoulder and i was warned by the guide that it was forbidden to film or photograph. Minutes later came a tour of Japaneses. They did not stop taking pictures. No one said anything. If they could, why not me ?! I filmed and photographed.
We were the rest of the morning in this archaeological site and the visit ended with the purchase of a hat and leather gloves in the street market.
After lunch we visited the Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area where is the Buddhist pagoda, huge and surrounded by a beautiful garden.
This area was care and with a good. It allows a walk. At the top is the Museum of Xian.
It had opened to the public a year before our visit and nothing compares to the today modern structure.
It had several pieces on display and near the end, a very old human skeleton. Very old. I put the camera on my shoulder, pressed the button "record" and i hear a scream. I stopped immediately. A policeman, a guard of the museum came running. He took my camera and went outside, after e pass the camera a millimeters of a small wall, he entered on the front door and went to a small room with a glass door. Was there another guard.
He spoke, spoke... aloud. I didn't understand anything.
He put the Panasonic over the table and wanted to see the footage. Each time he approached the oculus I lowered it. He put it up, I lowered it. He insisted I hit his hand and the oculus came down again.
We've been at this a long time. Each one more exalted than the other. He give up.
The next stage was the fine. He filled a perforated paper and showed it. I gestured no, I had no money. I took the wallet, showed there was little money. I gave him, i put in is hand. The colleague hit him in the leg for him to accept. But he refused. He wanted full value. He pointed to the numbers he had written. But I had no more money ... The scene already took a few minutes. Meantime appeared the guide and asked what was going on. I explained that I had no shot, I did not know it was forbidden and the police wanted me fine. He then spoke to the guard and advised me to pay. "Okay, I paid, but he has to fill the amount of the fine in the another part of the paper perforation. What it is in the book". The guide insisted: "pay". I had to take the bag hanging around my neck and pay. In the exit door the guard went to the guide and they ha a brief dialogue. Just I realized the guide said "Renmin" the name of the hotel. Shortly after, abroad, I asked the guide why he had related the hotel's name. His answer was clear: "he asked and I had to respond, he thinks he "loss of face" and I advise you to leave Xian as soon as possible". Oops!
In the hotel we reflect on the threat and we had take seriously the case. We heard several stories about the reaction of the Chinese when they feel they have loss face. OK, it's decided. Ends to stay in Xian and next is Beijing.
In the hotel someone gave us the direction of the CAAC office, where we were late afternoon. Flights were sell of and by train was impossible. The only alternative was to fly to Zhengzhou and then go by train to Beijing. So it was. Taxi back us to the hotel. We did not went out and we exchange the VHS tape.
We reserved a taxi for the next day. The match was early.
Troubles again, at check-out. The lady on the other side of the counter said we must pay 3 cokes and snacks package. We replied that there was a mistake because we do not consume anything from the fridge. Again her, "but I have recorded here, you have to pay". I passed me. "The hotel people puts us in a suite because it was full ... of air. Bad service o indecent dinner was served and now we must paid things that we have not consumed! No, we don't pay anything", "But you have to pay"... . "Look, it's six o'clock, I do not pay and I will scream and wake up everybody". During the discussion that was already getting busy a man appeared at the front desk. I explained once more, if someone consumed the product was not me. The answer was differenet: "Okay, let's solve the problem. You write that you did not consumed and signs. The problem it will be solved". And it was solved.
At the airport there were cows grazing on track. More than the travelers that were six or seven.
We walked a long distance and a man ordered to stop near the plane. A small door, outside of the machine, near the WC area, was open and stubbornly refused to close. Minutes later came a man in a bicycle wear a brown leather jacket. He tried to close, also. Twice, but failed. He slipped a kick and fulfilled the objective. They called the passengers. The seats were in wood. We went to the penultimate row. The Chinese were ahead. Behind us the two hosts. They slept after the departure and they wake up only when the wheels hit the ground on landing.
The flight took about two hours. The Zhengzhou airport gare was a wooden shed. Nothing compared to what is today! A very friendly lady was at the counter. We said we wanted to go to Beijing and the answer was what we already knew. There was no plane. Only train.
She wrote a paper in Mandarin, "we want to go to Beijing." She called the only taxi driver who was in the square. The man did not want to do the job. She (our savior angel) ask and he agreed. It was a funny taxi! I was in the back seat and I saw the ground, the road under my feet.
Zhengzhou is an industrial city. The guide (Lonely Planet) informed that few people speak English. Tourism here was rare. Only for lovers of martial arts.
A new unforgettable experience. This time in the station of the railways.
The square was filled with people. The taxi driver dropped us at one end and, shortly, a chineses begins to surround us. First curiosity was limited to a very close look. After, a suffocating approach. Finally, the fumbling in our clothing, hair, bags. E. begun to be worry. Shouts to scare them. No, they tightened the siege and arms.
Suddenly came the police, with a thick sticks and begun to depart the persons. Police opened a corridor and one of the police took us away from the crowd, for a placeholder of the square, just in front of the station entrance. The door was closed. After he hit the door and appears a woman She didn't understand anything. We showed the paper. Finally an answer. The finger point was in direction to the other side. What did she mean? She didn't give the opportunity to clarify because she closed the door.
We followed on the direction she had point. More or less lost, we didn't know very well what to do. Back to the crowd? That was the direction that she had point. Another police, those who have a brown uniform, came to us. Another savior angel! He saw the paper and was our guide. We returned to the crowd but now they did not approach. The respect is powerful than curiosity. The area of the square should correspond to half of a soccer field. At each end was a bamboo structure with police on high to watch. In the middle of the square thousands of persons. A famished army. People who eat and defecated in the same place, a man dressed in a skin, not leathery, people sitting with nothing, just trash. Those Chinese were coming from very poor rural interior to the city to find a job. They had nowhere to go. They had nothing.
The police took us to an arcade. It was a dark place and with a dry grass next the wall. It was where they lay. On the other side of the arcade was the ticket office. With huge queues. Authority is authority and he went to the front row. Some protested but he did not answer. Seconds later came to us and said anything. It should be the ticket price. We took some money and put it in his hand. He smiled, what it means that it wasn't enough. We trusted him and we give more money.
With two tickets he took us back to the station. The same ritual. Knock on the door ... the woman and we were invited to enter. A thousand thanks to the police and we entered in another world.
A huge station (images today reveal that it has a major transformation), stone building and almost empty. Silence. Only a light echo that came from abroad. A living room with sofas decorated with a white lace and four men. They greeted us with a smile. A table and an electric kettle with tea and various glasses.
We heard a train. Shortly, on the left side of the station, outside, a rush of thousands of steps. As the sound of herds in western movies. The land shake. Hundreds of persons were running to the train. The excitement of people did not disturb the conversation of the four men inside the station. They were leaders of the Chinese Communist Party . They got the same train and two of them were our companions in bed carriage. They were delegates to China's PC Congress which meets every five years.
The trip was overnight. In the corridor passed from time to time a person with a styrofoam container with food. I decided looking for dinner. It was a wagon with a huge stove which made the food, all black and with loose paint. Over the stove was a very big pot with rice.
The Chinese were amazed at my presence, then smiled. I pointed two fingers and the polystyrene packaging. Coins on the other hand, they took some and gesture Ok gesture.
Inside was dry rice, better than nothing.
Delegates to the congress read some papers and make small dialogues and then lay down. We wake up at morning when we were entering in Beijing railway station.
The station did not have a lot of people. Was calm, noise lower than I expected.
By an indication of the CFW Guidebooks guide we opted for Beijing Dong Fang Hotel. It was very differente to today. In 1988 it was a ugly building with some Indian tourists and a tolerable quality. A slow service and breakfast was not easy with dirty tables, few food and a big delay in treatment.
Beijing was a surprise.
Big and large central avenues were designed for landing aircrafts in case of war.
Multistory buildings in this avenues but, in back streets, there was two-story houses, poor and ugly buildings and unpaved streets.
Long streets with traditional shops, service and repair old cars and bicycles.
Streets with dust and, in some parts, with mud.
In fact, Beijing was still in the phase prior to the economic boom, with strong traditional features, people with rural aspect and lots of bikes.
The few traces from Western were tourists, the Kentucky Fried Chicken near Tiananmen Square and little else.
The Heavenly Square was a quiet place.
It was not far from the building of Central Committee of the Communist Party that had no great excitement and surveillance, also.
The pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen will be next year. In the square, the third world's largest public square, many people were walking, in particularly, families with children’s.
The background scene, had roofs of palaces, a long red wall, and the top of the entrance arch with the picture of Mao Zedong, The Forbidden City
The queue for the ticket office was big. We had to wait a few minutes. Almost all were Chinese who wanted to visit the Forbidden City.
Exclusive access to the imperial family and their servants was over, in 1925.
Now, all we could visit and at this time, we access to the interior of many pavilions, to the emperor's throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
As "Purple Forbidden City" is very large, it has over about 720 thousand square meters and almost a thousand buildings, the big number of visitors was not reflected in the area.
It was possible to visit halls with few people, move through streets and gardens without the usual confusion of the very popular tourist sites.
All palaces have the same traditional architecture and despite looting and destruction inside these buildings we could saw preserved materials with great value. The statues on the steps, the decorated mosaic, the wooden walls crafted and painted red, the decoration of the ceilings, marble bridges, gardens ... are elements that remain until the present and showing the way life of the Emperor and its servers and rituals that took place here in nearly six centuries.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony is one of the most striking places. The building is all made by wood, massive, the highest of the City (35.5 meters), with access by a large square. Before we got to the palace we had to climb a staircase.
Next to the stairs, marble halls that apparently function as small protective walls of the palace, where were some golden dragons statues.
The place where was the imperial throne, two meters above the ground, is imposing but, at same time, gloomy, cold and distant.
Columns with golden inscriptions, the jade colors and marble stairs break the coldness. The Forbidden City was classified a World Heritage Site in 1987, a year before our visit.
We were in Forbidden City at late afternoon.
After a tour in Tiananmen Square the aim was to return to the hotel. It was not easy. Dozens of taxis stopped but none wanted to do the job. We had to put in a cross with traffic lights i got in the car when it stop. So it was. The taxi driver cranky, cranky but took us to the hotel.
They have to reach a value to be paid. It was easy to reach that amount and they preferred to stop than spend money on fuel and do not receive more.
In other visits to Beijing I was told that they decided to move up the value but the practical result was the same.
At evening we had solve the problem, the solution was to call to the hotel and they get taxi.
Tired and with no patience to tolerate the bad service at the hotel, the problem of get airplane tickets .... we decided to postpone the visit to the Great Wall and Shanghai. It was a foolish decision. Later, we returned to Hong Kong and, in fact, we never been in Shanghai and Great Wall.