CHINA DIARY – BY ANDREAS
In the early 90’s I was working for a shipping company that had offices around the world including Hong Kong. On July of 94 I undertook a project for my company which was to travel in China, meet the local people that we use to deal with and upgrade / refresh our China port guide with the latest information. This project gave me the opportunity to learn for myself and in some depth one country and its people that have a very long history and civilisation. The trip started at the end of July and continued until the beginning of November with 2 short brakes back to Hong Kong for a rest and renewal of my visa.
During this voyage I had the chance to learn about a small part of this vast country that is called China. Because of the size and the geographical location the differences between the various areas was evident. In the areas that because of the commercial and shipping business of the city the locals had contact with Europeans I was almost invisible to them, one more European passing through. In the other and mostly in the rural areas the vast majority was looking at me. Their eyes betraying their curiosity for the ‘’outer world’’. The reason that most of them did not try to contact was the language barrier. The most ‘’brave’’ were coming close saying a flying ‘’hello’’ only to move along with a smile not waiting for an answer.
In general at the north part of the country due to the reason that less ports exist my presence was attracting much more attention than in the south. The main reason was that at that point China had shifted its resources in order to modernize the southern part in anticipation of the return of Hong Kong, which took place on 97. That did not mean that the rest of the country did not follow, major projects were evident that they were under way in almost every part.
The first leg of the trip started on 26/7 with a China South Eastern Airlines flight from Hong Kong Kai Tak airport, which does not exist anymore as it was replaced by a new and more advanced one, to Shanghai international airport. After arriving I went to the place were the driver from our local office was supposed to wait but he was late so I smoked a cigarette and due to the lack of any place to dispose it I threw it in the already dirty pavement. Surprise - surprise, an old Chinese lady wearing an official uniform comes straight up to me and starts speaking to me in rapid Chinese pointing at the cigarette but. After exchanging sign language and with the help of a passer by I found out that I have being fined for throwing the cigarette to the street!! Well deciding to make her happy I handed her a small amount in Hong Kong dollars as I did not have any local (Yuan) currency and she departed happy. The rest of the day went by quietly and planning for the trip ahead trying to find the most optimum route basis the available transportation and estimated stay at each city.
The next day in the morning, back to the airport for the internal flight to Dalian, our first stop. Dalian being one of the major ports in China. As the first city that I really had the chance to look around I liked it, although it had all the elements of a western big city. Of course Dalian is famous for another reason. Very near the city is the area of ‘’Daya Bay’’ were every year a large number of tourists visit for their summer holidays. Also a large number of Chinese leaders has visited the place with most famous of all Mao Tse Toung who was visiting every year for 2 weeks. That was mentioned with pride from the locals and many cars still had his photo hanging from their mirrors.
During the dinner with the local people and as the custom commanded I let our hosts to choose the drinks. He chose a Chinese kind of liqueur / wine and with the others mostly not drinking it was up to me and our host to do the drinking. For the Chinese a business or other relationship is ‘’sealed’’ when you drink together and what I have found out afterwards was that he was considered to be the ‘’champion’’ on drinking with a very wide reputation. During dinner we had drunk one bottle each and since I was standing at the end it was considered something short of a miracle. That helped my reputation but on the other hand in some occasions trying to get me drunk was their goal, in order achieve what the ‘’champion’’ did not….
Allow me a small parenthesis here to say that in all the places I had visited the local people were proud of their place and more than happy to show me around.
From there and in about 3-4 hours drive the next stop, the city of Bayouquan. A fishing village that it is slowing turning into a commercial port. It certainly had more ‘‘coloured’’ that Dalian however their local hotel, only one of them around, it was let’s say not to European standards.
Here the place, which they took me, was called ‘’the mountain of sorrows’’. As legend has it the mountain took the shape of a mother that when she lost her 2 sons she begged the gods to take her also and they, responding to her request they turned her into a mountain. Upon returning to the hotel I found out that our well-planned schedule, after the first 2 days it was abandoned, was not working. The train that would have taken as straight to the next city was cancelled. The new route would take as to the inland city of Harbin and from there to Dandong. The only catch instead of arriving there at about midnight as planned we would arrive there at about 6 am with no confirmed bed or seat on the second part of the train travel.
The first leg was comfortable enough and I was confident that everything would go okay to the second leg also. At the time we had until the departure time we visited a local hotel and had dinner. I was not travelling alone but one of our Shanghai office people was accompanying me. When we returned to the station he told me that he would go and do the ‘’arrangements’’ for our travel to secure a seat for the 6-hour journey ahead of us. Seeing him coming back with a smile in his face I was sure that he managed to get a bed. Well the ‘’bed’’ proved to be a so-called ‘’hard seat’’, which was a wooden seat. After boarding the train I found out why he was smiling, some people went all the way standing….
Dandong is situated on the banks of Yalu River, which is the natural borderline between China and North Korea. A small size city for the, Chinese standards anyway, and with a number or modern buildings.
Arriving there, exhausted from a sleepless night it was demanded that I had to pay a 50% surcharge on my ticket because I was a foreigner. After about an hour during which I was mainly shouting at them on my native language (Greek) and after the local Manager had to come down to the station (it was Sunday) I was satisfied that I created enough havoc for one day and after obtaining an official receipt we went to the hotel.
At the top of the hotel there was revolving restaurant and having fully awaken from our ‘’chat’’ at the train station I had the chance to have breakfast there and at the same time have an overview of the city.
What attracted my attention was the only bridge that was crossing the river and after making some enquiries I found out that it was the only bridge. This bridge also is treated as a historical monument as it has been the centre of many battles during the colonial wars. Since I had time to kill I walked there attracting the glances of the few people I met on the street and after arriving there I tried to take some photos of the bridge. The Chinese guard started waving at me frantically and the North Korean was watching me very intensely. I stopped and realised that photos were strictly prohibited. Well that did not stop me to take some photos later that day from the revolving restaurant, even from a distance I had a piece were history has been written before.
From there we proceeded to the cities of Jinhou, Qinhuangdao and Xingang. All transportation by car and in one case by train. The trip proved to be one of the most enjoyable. The train not crowded and we had a compartment to our selves together with one more person. He was an elderly Chinese who proved to be a very interesting person with a good knowledge of English. We talked during most of the time of the travel about general items and also about life in china under the Japanese occupation, which he lived, as also about his family. When he learned that I am from Greece I realised that he did not only knew my country but he knew a lot of our ancient history. It was a kind of exchanging history lessons for both of us. When he finally drifted to sleep I felt a little sad because I would not have the chance to learn more from him.
From Xingang, which is the nearest port of Beijing and also the place were the great wall of China ends I had the chance to pass for a short visit of one, memorable as it proved to be, day from Beijing.
There my ‘’escort’’ teamed up with one of his friends that were living there and they undertook to show me around as much as one can see in one day. We started our tour from the point that I think it must be were China’s feature is shaped. It is the square were Mao in 1949 declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China, it is the square were 40 years later in 1989 the students with their blood set in motion the changes that are happening today.
As I was walking around the square I asked my self ‘’do we have the right to walk here’’ or should we enclose this space and watch it from a distance as a least tribute of respect to what happened to the past?
After I went up the same stairs were Mao used to go to the balcony were he made his declaration. From there I took a huge step in time and preceded to the winter palace of the emperor were the ‘’forbidden city’’ is. Everything was in perfect shape and preserved in such a way that made you think that the emperor may step out and walk with you at any minute.
When I walked on the grounds of the Forbidden City, known also from the movie ‘’The Last Emperor’’ the emotions that go through are unique. Only the thought that not that far away in time emperors that were holding the powers to change the future of a nation like China made you shiver. Especially if you let your imagination run and see the small emperor from the movie run alongside you with his loyal servants running behind him obediently.
After a small stop for a quick lunch we moved on to the Summer Palace in the outskirts of Beijing. The summer palace was a marvel of architecture. Were the emperor used to walk in the afternoon the wood on the ceiling and the side ways was covered with paintings every were and not 2 painting were the same along the route which was 578 meters long. The paintings were all inspired from the every day life in china. Characteristic of how much the Chinese people are of their history is that when the British army withdrew from the occupation of Beijing they have burned down the whole structure, only to be reconstructed from scratch back to its original form.
As the day ended I knew that I had lived an experience that rarely we have the chance to live. I am glad.
From Beijing we took the overnight train that was taking 17 hours to go to our next stop, Qingdao. One of the biggest ports of China but with evident its European influence and architecture. Qingdao was a German colony and it evident as all the buildings are no traditional Chinese and there is a local distillery that produces beer and wine. Also it is famous for it’s silk that is produced there and also the spring water wells that considered a big tourist attraction. During my stay there and during a walk along the beach I had the chance to meet a group from the local university that had a stand with tourist guides and other material that was for foreigners visiting the city.
After a short rest at Qingdao we continued to Lianyungang. The route was one that will stay in my memory for a long time. Due to the works on the main road we had to follow the secondary roads (most were not even paved) that were passing via numerous small but traditional villages. In the places we stopped to ask directions my presence was immediately detected and usually a small crowd, from curious kids mainly, was gathering to see and wave.
Lianyungang was city that anybody could see the changes happening to china. On the one side the traditional houses, on the other the modern office blocks and shopping centres.
After a short stay at Rizhao, a small city, we proceeded at Rizhao. Rizhao is a city with heavy industry on the one side and due to their climate on e of the preferred places for tourists to visit. During my visit the rumour had it that Deng Shiao Ping, the president of china was recuperating at the city. The police presence around the streets was above the average so maybe the rumour was true.
Based on Rizhao we did two one-day trips to the nearby cities of Longkou and Weihai. Both were small cities with more traditional buildings and with modernisation not yet taking over. Characteristic in Weihai was that many old houses have been undergoing restoration in order to be used as permanent or vacation houses.
With these 2 visits I have concluded the north China stage of my trip and proceeded to Shanghai in order to start the second part, which was the visits in the Yangtze River, one of the biggest rivers in the world.
The short plane flight took as to the last port were ocean-going ships can go, at the city of Wuhan. An industrial city situated in both banks of the river with a number of bridges connecting it. From this port shallow drafted barges take the shipments and transport them to the depths of china.
From there I started the trip towards shanghai with the riverboat. The first trip was memorable as the river is full with numerous boats of all sizes and makes and the scenery to the side of the river is constantly changing form small fishing villages to mountains, to cities, to rice plantations.
Next stop the small city of Jiujiang. We arrived there late on a Saturday evening so the first glance of the city was not until the next day. The local people with who we would have the meeting the next day decided to take me to a visit some were that for me it was one of the highlights of my trip. First stop a Buddhist temple situated about 2 hours outside the city on a small mountain. During this visit I had the chance to see the monks during their daily life routine and see artic rafts that were painted or sculptured by them as well as statues that were used for their worship and prayers. One of the monks has approached me and bowed to me, which I thought it was an honour for me to be treated this way. Via my colleague who acted as an interpreter I found out that I was the first even European person to visit their temple and he asked my name in order for them to add it in their visit list and their diaries. It was really an honour.
After there we went to a house was built on the riverbanks and it was 2,000 years old. The tapestries and the paintings were a feast to the eyes both from the architectural and colours involved. After this visit we renewed our rendezvous for the next day for business talks this time.
We all know Beijing is the capital of China. But how many know that the ancient capital prior Beijing was Nanjing (Nan king), which was my next visit. A modern city but at the same time the ancient remaining intact. In these places you can admire the ancient Chinese architecture and skill. The locals do not lose any chance to mention to their visitors that they were the first capital of china. It was one of the few times that on my departure I felt a little sad that I did not have the time required to visit more in depth this wonderful city and get lost in the vortex of time.
From there and due to lack of time I returned to Shanghai were I stayed for a couple of days tending to matters of the company and preparing my report before I returned to Hong Kong as my first leg of my tour had come to an end.
At that point the feelings were conflicting. The emotions and what was experienced wanted me to carry on but the constant travelling had tired me down an I knew that I needed to rest, I needed to put my thoughts of what I saw and felt in order and renew my strength to continue for my second leg which I knew it would provided even more feelings and memories to be savoured.