My first visit to China was on a whim in 1989. I saw an ad in the paper for ‘six days in Beijing to see the ‘great’ sights’ on a Qantas special, for $599 – for flights, accommodation, meals and tours. What a bargain. So a friend and I phoned up (well before booking online) and booked our holiday. As Sydney sweltered through a steamy summer we packed for minus 10 deg. Geezus it was cold there. Lucky I borrowed a puffer coat as I had nothing warm enough.
In those olden days you had to travel with a group, so a small band of Aussies landed in snowy Beijing, mid-February and took the shuttle to well out-of-town, to a Movenpic hotel. One of the trip clowns thought it was hilarious as the building was structured like a cartwheel and you had to walk outside before you walked inside. “It’s like a bloody caravan park”, he said.
I didn’t notice anything until the next morning when I entered the dining room which was all pretty in pink with lace curtains on the windows – maybe I had arrived in Switzerland!
But no, outside the windows on a grey day, hoards of grey-clad cyclists were streaming by (also well before the advent of capitalism being embraced and the CAR coming to town).
And so began the tour of the great sights and tours of carpet factories, which were a big part of China tourism then. My travelling coach companions were an odd lot and as I had never travelled in a group before these people were a revelation. There were two couples who continuously whinged about the tea. Our gracious tour leader passed around warm tea from a thermos every time we got back on the bus. Being freezing we needed this elixir for warmth and also to hydrate us. But some people just wanted a cuppa Bushells with milk and sugar.
One of the guys wore shorts, a sweater and a windcheater and sandals. I asked him how cold he was on a scale of 1-10. “Bloody 12, didn’t know what the weather would be in this part of the world.” (He eventually, and wisely purchased a pair of socks!) This was his first trip out of Australia – he was 30. “Usually, the first overseas trip for Aussies is to New Zealand, ” I said to him. “Yeah, but the travel agent recommended this place and I like Chinese food.”
He ganged up with us and he had a fab time, without knowing anything about the history or actually where he was. But we were awed by the Great Wall as the snow fell on it; as we walked into the cold Ming Tombs and saw the mighty marble ship on the frozen lake of the Summer Palace and the glory of the Forbidden City, shrouded in fine snow glistening in the sunny day.
We had a few adventures there and a trip out to Tianjin which was not so used to seeing foreigners. A man followed me around for an hour or so, until I stopped and quietly confronted him. His English wasn’t bad and he wanted to know where I was from. He told me he had worked on container ships throughout the 1960s and had visited Melbourne. So, time with a new friend to take tea and talk.
We were pretty much confined to our coach except when stopping for tourist sites. And it was difficult to get around with no language as there were no street signs in English.
Our adventurous man with the bare legs that were freaking the locals out came exploring with us one night when we ventured out of our hotel. The street lights were about 3 watts and stumbling along in the dark wasn’t easy. But at the end of a long lane the world opened up to a deep cut in the terrain and I thought it was a little valley until we climbed down a steep banks of a deep and dry river. Lights ahead beckoned and we came across a small city of coloured lights flooding ice carvings – the first I had ever seen: bridges, palaces, animals, walls and people depicted in the frozen art works. Yet again, not a word of Mandarin from us but we made a few friends who guided us back to our digs.
Once our coach stopped at the back of a city park and all these colourfully dressed ethnic women came out of the bushes carrying fur hats of all colours – rabbit I think. So we started doing business through the window. My aim was to buy one hat to keep my head warm Police came out of nowhere and I’m throwing money out the window and women were laughing and shreeking and skedaddling out of view. How did this happen? How did I wind up with six fur hats stacked up on my lap?
Bev Malzard was to return to China several times over the next couple of decades but that first visit where she felt like a bull in a China shop holds the happiest memories.
Four months after her return, the Tiananmen Square protest took place.