In the summer of 1982 I was put on a professional course conducted by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in Delhi, China/Philippines, Japan and Thailand. I had fellow participants from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. The course ran for eight weeks in Delhi after which our group was to spend four weeks in Peoples’ Republic of China (PRoC), two weeks in Japan and another couple of weeks in Thailand.
In August 1982 we were all set to leave for Beijing. A little delay in ticketing prevented us to fly via Hong Kong as the flights were heavily booked. China was just opening up and there was a rush of westerners to see the land that was considered mysterious, veiled off, as it were, by a bamboo curtain. There was no direct flight from India to China. The closest was a linkage from Karachi which was on the route of China Airline’s flight from Tirana in Albania to Beijing via Addis Ababa. The Airline used to fly to only friendly countries. While Pakistan was a friendly country Albania and Ethiopia, like China, were communist “revisionists” at that point of time.
Thirty years ago China, unlike today, was not flush with US dollars. It used to be short of the stuff – in fact, very short. It had, therefore, sealed a deal with the UPU that it would take care of us all and the allowances that were due to us would be paid to it in dollars. The Chinese Administration would advance to us a small amount of 15 yuans per day in the local currency (especially printed for foreigners) for out-of-pocket expenses. In the event, I was not advanced any hard currency before departure. What was advanced to me by the Delhi UNDP was a travellers’ cheque of measly $40.
One August morning we flew to Karachi but I had no visa for Pakistan. In fact, I couldn’t have had one as my official passport was not even endorsed for Pakistan (as also for South Africa and Israel). At the Karachi immigration my passport and that of the Bangladeshi were promptly put in a locked box to be collected before departure. The result was that both of us could not go into the arrival area. We had to loiter around in the veranda without even drinking-water, leave alone snacks or cold drinks. There was no vendor around anyway.
Thankfully, the China Airline flight arrived on time and the cabin crew served dinner soon after take-off. That put to rest my hunger. It was rather late when we finished the dinner but Chinese passengers were chattering away. They seemed like a talkative lot. The Australian consultant, Pat Kearney, told me there were no seats available even on this flight too and the Chinese Administration had off-loaded seven Chinese at Karachi to accommodate us. Rather unusual, but the Chinese Administration could take such extraordinary measures without anybody protesting. The flight was over the Himalayas and after nine hours or so in the air we touched down at Beijing around six in the morning.
The Airport was nothing much, though, it was certainly better than what we had then in Bombay and Delhi – but not like the new massive one they have got now. It was here that I came across for the first time the automated walkway which saves the passengers the effort at least for some distances of walking and lugging the baggage. These have since become common in Indian bigger airports. They now even have a name – “travellator” (to rhyme with escalator?) The formalities were completed in a jiffy because of the rep of the Chinese Administration and soon we were on a rather narrow road to Beijing in an air-conditioned Toyota minibus.
We were put up at the Beijing Hotel – a fairly old hotel, a contemporary of Taj Mahal Palace of Bombay. Like the one in Bombay, it had an old block and modern-looking newer block. Its construction had commenced in 1900 and was completed in 1915. It had hosted many distinguished people from Sun Yat Sen, Ho Chi Minh, to Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon. I was allotted a room in the older block with that typical old-world charm. The Chinese aesthetics made it more welcoming and hospitable. Located close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square we were all very comfortably placed.
Only, we could not have walked on to these well-known places on our own any time of our choosing. Foreigners, as we were told, needed to be escorted. Only certain areas of the country were at that time open to foreigners. For instance, in our four weeks in the country we were to visit Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Soochow, Hangchow and Shanghai – a tourist circuit that was initially opened for foreigners in late 1970s and early 80s. We were to do the same circuit and escorted right through to several tourist sites in the six cities.
A little before eight on the second morning an interpreter arrived to pick us up and take to the headquarters. Roads were largely empty with no motor vehicles but there were lots of bicycles and electric trolley buses. Signs of China opening up could be discerned from billboards of famous Japanese firms like Hitachi, National, Citizen Watches and so on.
The Chinese working hours are long – from 8.00 AM to 12 noon and from 2 PM to 6.00 PM with a lunch break of two hours for all the six days of the week. The first day in office was as usual – speeches of welcome and the response by the consultant. The top bosses of Chinese Postal Administration seemed to have made it a point to be present. But they all were an informal lot. All wearing light grey bush shirts, they were somewhat surprised to see us all in suits and ties. As soon as the formalities were over they gestured to us to pull out the ties and things. It was indeed uncomfortable wearing a tie in that humid heat. Beijing in August can be uncomfortably warm. A bit of refreshments followed and then the Course commenced with visits to field units in Beijing.
Having taken the responsibility to host us the Chinese did an excellent job of it. We never had to ask for anything. From food to sight-seeing and shopping, they had taken great care in planning and organising our visit. Though there were no malls, they took us to shops that looked ordinary but had some fantastic ceramic and porcelain-ware as also beautiful woollen garments. As for sight-seeing, they took us to all the major sights. China, after all, has a long history and historical sites are littered all over.
The first on the list had to be the Great Wall - an hour or so away. Not much need be said about it except that it now transpires the Wall was built by several dynasties and not only by those of Ming and Qing and is much older and longer than what was earlier reckoned. As we reached we found it crawling with tourists – mostly whites. It was like an Indian mela and people were milling around – in shops, in restaurants or out in the open. A large number, generally advanced in age, were already going up the Wall. It was strenuous, the last bit being very steep and tough and one could see people bending forward to go up holding the metal railings. The Chinese say that one wouldn’t be enough of a man if he didn’t go right up to the Observation Post. I did huff and puff up to the Post. From there one gets a stunning sight of the Wall continuing onwards and the surrounding country-side. As we came down more and more tourist batches had arrived and were going up in a crowd.
To say that the Wall was impressive would be an understatement. The widest wall I had seen till then was that of Bhuj in Kutch in 1963 which was, if my memory serves me right, was about 10 to 12 ft wide. This is about 30 ft wide and can very well accommodate a truck leaving enough space on both sides. No wonder, people had come in thousands travelling over long distances to see it and tuck away in their consciousness the sheer feel of this Great Wonder, a World Heritage Site to boot.
Like the Great Wall we had heard since childhood of the Forbidden City in the Chinese capital where commoners were not allowed to enter. Located in the centre of the city, the Forbidden City is also known as the Imperial Palace which hosted a couple of dozen emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties for almost 500 years until 1912. Exemplifying the Chinese palatial architecture, its influence can be seen elsewhere in East Asia. It is a mammoth place and cannot be covered in half a day. Built over a period of 14 years in early 15th Century it is spread over an area of more than 700,000 square feet accommodating about a thousand monuments. Well fortified by about 25 feet high wall that is as wide as 15 feet at its base and a wide, pretty deep moat, it served as not only as residences but also as political and cultural centre of the Empire. A profusion of walls, gates and pavilions dominate the landscape. I found very little greenery in such a big complex which was mostly paved. The beautifully laid out Imperial Garden in the surrounding grounds compensated for the lack of greenery in the Palace. A museum was established in the complex in 1925 after the last of the emperors, hanging on in a corner of the Palace, was ousted from it and the whole complex is now known as Palace Museum, another World Heritage Site, displaying some exquisite pieces of Chinese art and craft.
I do not remember much about the Ming Tombs where we went one noon for a brief visit. About 50 kilometres away the tombs of thirteen emperors of 14th to 17th Centuries of the Ming Dynasty are situated over an area of around 120 square kilometres in a scenic area at the foot of a mountain range. It is difficult to cover all those tombs unless one is a fanatic and tombs buff. In any case only one or two tombs were open to public. Nothing spectacular about the place except that it is scenic, but there must be more to it than what we saw as it is another World Heritage Site. I, however, remember the lunch that was hosted – about the finest lunch that I had during my brief sojourn in China. Looking at the facilities at the Great Wall and the Ming tombs and later even at other places one must appreciate the Chinese efforts and that nothing of this kind is available in our country even now at the tourist places. Neither there are decent eating places, nor are there shops selling curios or memorabilia for tourists.
We have all heard about the Tiananmen Square. It was made more popular outside China by a revolutionary rush for democracy spearheaded by students in 1989. The Square, however, has generally been famous for demonstrations and marches. The Chinese official parades and military displays are also held here. Constructed in the 15th Century by the Ming Dynasty adjoining the Forbidden City, it is the largest square in the world covering around 450,000 square metres. Chairman Mao’s mausoleum is located here as also the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Apart from the Gates it is flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. The place is spectacular and one cannot but get amazed by its sheer scale.
We also had a taste of Chinese performing arts. One evening we were taken to a piano recital – by the musician who, we were told, had stood second in the world piano playing championships. The recital started on a slow note but towards the end it became slightly athletic, ending in a crescendo of sorts. On another evening we were at a circus. Chinese are known for their acrobatic acumen. What interested me most was the sight of a panda – white, furry and roly-poly with two black blobs for eyes. We also were lucky to visit the famous Peking Opera. Conceptualised in 18th Century, it became popular in the Qing Dynasty, incorporating as it did music, mime, dance, acrobatics and, of course, vocal music. Silk Route was being played out with lavish sets. As the travellers passed through the Indian portion of the Route the dancers broke into a semblance of Bharat Natyam and our interpreter, Liu, sitting next to me gave me a nudge asking me to take photographs. I did her bidding and the results are in the album – not satisfactory because of the darkness and distance.
The Beijing stay was rounded off with a banquet hosted by the Vice Minister of Communications. We sat at a huge round table with the typical Chinese rotating centre. The food was excellent and every dish was beautifully presented. The Chinese are very good at food presentation. The food in China changes from region to region and we went through several types of cuisine during our travels. In Beijing I did not find much to choose but as we progressed to Shanghai we came across more familiar tastes and flavours. In any case, I was mostly on continental food, tucking away steaks and things.
It was at this banquet that I first came across that tough, stinging and fiery Chinese spirit Maotai. The hosts insisted on finishing it in one gulp from the little wine glass. It assaulted you in the throat and burned the insides as it went down. Maotai was, kind of, de re-gueur at the end of formal dinners everywhere we went.