China 1984/5

I meet Craig in May 1983, just prior to the trip Donna & I take to SE Asia. I send him a few postcards, ostensibly to entice him to make the same trip. Subversively to stay connected. In Aukland, New Zealand I get a letter from him addressed to the American Express office. Once I am back, throughout 1984 we “date”. He lives in Melville Saskatchewan, hundreds of miles away from Calgary, where I live. But we manage to connect a few times before he heads out on his own SE Asia trip in September.

We plan to meet in Hong Kong on Christmas Eve and from there carry on to China, India & Nepal. Donna decides to join the trip and soon her friend Debbie has signed on as well. We reserve rooms at the Y and book our flights.

In hindsight I wonder how we managed all of this travel without the internet. No email or texting to communicate. No expedia or trip advisor for hotel bookings. No airline websites for booking flights. Somehow we figure it all out and make it work.

Also, in hindsight I wonder what possessed me to travel across the Pacific to a foreign land to meet a man I hardly knew, to travel with him through some of the most challenging countries we’ve been to. And I wonder what he thought of two more women crashing his trip?

Debbie & Craig arrive in Hong Kong a few days before Donna & I and are there at the airport to meet our flight on December 24. Hong Kong is sparkling with lights and the entire population is out to take in the splendour. We have to abandon our taxi and walk the final blocks to the Y. It’s a magical start to our trip.

From Hong Kong we take a train inland to Guangzhou. The locals still call it Canton. In 1984 China is still very backward, very communist and very untouristed. We are fish out of water. The alphabet, the language, the lack of tourist infrastructure all conspire to make travel very difficult. We stumble through. It is a test for Craig’s and my budding relationship.

From Guangzhou we take a boat farther inland to Guilin, known for its karst mountain formations. It is an overnight boat and we are crammed in like sardines! We get off the boat for lunch at a primitive food stop and get our first opportunity to use the famed Chinese squat toilets.

From Guilin we take a train to Xian. Halfway through the trip we are accosted by the conductor who is angrily yelling at us. It takes a while to find someone who speaks English and can interpret his ranting. Turns out the young woman who helped us purchase our tickets at the Guilin train station bought the cheaper version meant for the locals rather than the more expensive tourist tickets. She pocketed the profit. We pay the difference to the conductor and are glad to not be turned out in the dark at a remote station.

Craig proceeds to get drunk with the Hong Kong car salesmen who’d acted as interpreters. And give my berth away to one of their pretty female companions, thinking he & I could share his berth. Thinking it would be romantic to get cozy on a 3 ft wide hard berth on a cold, juddering Chinese train with no privacy. Yeah, right! Ok, not!

The farther north we go, the colder it gets. The hotels and restaurants get more basic. The food gets scarce as it is January and nothing is imported. Travel gets more difficult. We soldier on, making the best of bad situations. It is an education. And an opportunity to experience oppressive communism. And to appreciate what we have in Canada.

Xian is home to the famed Terra Cotta warriors, a collection of terra cotta sculptures – warriors, horses and chariots – depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. They were buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE to protect him in his afterlife and discovered in 1974 by local farmers.

We are told, under no uncertain terms, to NOT take photos of the excavation site where the warriors have been unearthed. Numerous security guards keep an eye on us as our cameras hang uselessly around our necks. While Donna & Debbie create a noisy diversion, and the guards all turn their attention toward them, I duck behind Craig and snap a quick shot. Will it even turn out, I wonder? As this is 1985 we are using non-digital film and must wait for months, until we get home and have the film developed, to see what any of our photos look like. Thankfully the shot is good. The light is decent and the focus is not too blurry. Yay!

Next stop is Beijing, the ancient imperial capital city. In 1985 there are few cars and many, many bicycles. No high-rise buildings. No amenities. Little food. We eat what is available for the season: potatoes, onions, cabbage, noodles and skin-and-bones chicken. We all lose weight although you’d never know it from the photos because we are wearing all of our clothes. Two and three pair of pants, several sweaters. A day trip to the Great Wall has us draped in hotel blankets. Still we are cold. And hungry.

Chinese currency is two tiered. There are yuan for the locals and FEC (foreign exchange certificate) for foreigners. Paradoxically, the locals want our FEC so they can make purchases in up-scale shops and we want yuan so we can shop and eat in the local establishments. Needless to say a thriving black-market exists to facilitate exchange.

Walking down the street it is not unusual to be approached by money-changers, whispering “change money?” Which we do. Quite often. Until one day, as we are walking away from our money changer, we hear a commotion and, looking back, we see police hassling our man. Knowing we have broken the law and could end up in jail, we run. Craig is a foot taller than anyone else on the street and we are dressed in red and blue gortex jackets. We stand out! Like spies, we hop on a trolley, ride a few blocks, hop off, cross the street and hop on another trolley. It is a funny story today, but we were terrified at the time. All evening we expected the police to come knocking on our door. To this day we wonder what happened to our unlucky money changer.

The Forbidden City, Tienamen Square, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall and other sights are eerily deserted. Great for photos.

Back in Guangzhou, cold and starving, we head straight for the White Swan – the only 5 star hotel in the country at the time – for the Sunday buffet brunch. It is not cheap but the array of pastries, fruit, eggs, and meat is well worth the price. We stuff ourselves. After what we have experienced in the rest of China, Guangzhou now seems very civilized and sophisticated. It’s all about perspective!

In Hong Kong we indulge in a MacDonald’s breakfast, perhaps the last time I’ve eaten at this fast-food icon. That egg McMuffin tasted as good as anything I’ve ever eaten.

China resides in our memories as both the best and the worst month of our lives. The extreme privation and the fear and confusion we frequently felt were temporary. We were able to leave. After China in January of 1985 there would be little in our lives that would ever seem truly awful, few problems that would seem insurmountable. Craig & I got to see each other at our worst. Our coldest, hungriest, dirtiest, angriest, saddest. If we still wanted to keep company after that month in China, surely we were meant to be together.


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