If you hang around the travel section here at all, you'll doubtless be familiar with the lengthy delays between me visiting a country and finally getting around to writing about it. Well, I suspect the 16 year delay between this particular trip and the writeup is likely to remain unsurpassed for the lifetime of this site.
My excursion to China in 1993 - primarily undertaken so that I could be on the opposite side of the planet from all my mates on the day I turned 30 - was the first time I'd ever travelled outside of Europe, and was the beginning of a love affair with Asia that's lasted to this day. Later this year, I'll be going back to the Mainland (with The Belated Birthday Girl in tow, of course) for the first time since that holiday. So a look back at 1993 seemed like useful preparation for that. I exhaustively documented the trip in a ONE HUNDRED MINUTE LONG HOLIDAY VIDEO which took its title from a Billy Bragg song: don't worry, I've rewatched it so that you don't have to. (Though about thirty minutes of the best bits are available on a YouTube playlist if you're curious.)
Independent travel in Mainland China is tricky but doable these days: in 1993 it was well-nigh impossible for the casual punter. So I went with a tour group from Jetsave, on a package that looks very similar to the China Highlights tour they still do today, just travelling in the opposite direction. The group of twelve had a curiously perfect balance: three older couples (Clare and Fred, Kay and Frank, Gloria and Howard), two younger couples (Lawrence and Jennifer, John and Stacy), a girl in her twenties travelling on her own (Susannah), and the twenty-nine-and-a-big-bit-year-old me. The unspoken pressure on us to pair off was immense - or at least that's the delusion I was labouring under for the duration of the trip, without any supporting evidence from anyone else concerned. Nevertheless, for those two and a half weeks the twelve of us got on splendidly as a group, primarily because we all shared a common enemy in Pete, the Jetsave rep who was travelling with us. But more on that later.
My first coherent memory of Asia is walking out of the air-conditioned lobby of the Park Hotel onto the nighttime streets of Hong Kong, and seeing the lenses on both my specs and my camcorder fog up instantly with the humidity. (Yes, my holiday video actually has a shot of the Tsimshatsui lights as seen through a layer of condensation. I think I thought it was art.) To me it was like every city I'd ever heard of squashed into a tiny space and given a late licence: all screaming neon, loud traffic, and people crowding the streets. All I could do was wander around dumbstruck for an hour or so, before grabbing a £2 bowl of noodles in a nearby cafe, and resolving to undertake a more serious examination the next morning.
The first full day of the tour consisted of local guide Dexter rushing us around all the stereotypical sights of Hong Kong, but as it was the first time for me it was all astonishing. The tram up to Victoria Peak and the staggering view from the top: the gigantic kitsch statues of religious icons at Repulse Bay: a sampan ride around the bay at Aberdeen, veering from the Jumbo Floating Restaurants and pleasure boats to refugee sampans: and the simple cheap pleasures of nipping backwards and forwards on the Star Ferry for a little over 10p a pop before taking a nighttime stroll around the naughty bits of Wan Chai.
But there was a reasonable amount of free time on this leg of the tour, so I got to break away from the group and indulge myself a little too. As a Hong Kong cinema fanboy, it was inevitable that I'd see a couple of the local films while I was there. At the New York Cinema I caught pop star Leon Lai in The Sword Of Many Loves, where he played a swordsman fighting off a couple of troublesome women - one was a poisoner, the other was a psychopathic nun seeking revenge. And at the Silvercord Cinema, I saw Yuen Woo-Ping's Iron Monkey, a cracking prequel to the Once Upon A Time In China films, climaxing in a Donnie Yen fight involving the use of blazing wooden poles as weapons. Sadly, both the New York and the Silvercord closed down in 2006, an indication of the feeble state HK cinema is in now. But Ocean Park is still going strong, happily - a properly Chinese theme park thriving in the face of Western competition. With its historical villages, sealife displays and killer cable car ride, it made for a fabulous day out on the actual day of my Big Three Oh.
Hong Kong makes for a nice entry point into Chinese culture, of course: the English language is widely prevalent, even in the subtitles of the films I watched there. It's only a comparatively short train ride to the other side of the Chinese border, but you could notice the transition between the two countries happening through the window. The railway line into Guangzhou looked like the fast track through a building site, with construction work happening everywhere. Once you were inside the city itself, the swarms of bikes on the streets were a new thing to contend with, along with the ever-present problem on how on earth you avoid them when you cross the road. (Gloria thought that the best approach was to just walk straight across without showing fear, which bicycles can apparently smell, like dogs.) Not to mention the culture shock of dealing with the two barely-interchangeable money systems in use throughout China at the time - renminbi (RMBs) for local residents, and Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) for tourists like us. (At least that's one bit of silliness that we don't have to worry about during our 2009 visit, as FECs were phased out in the mid-nineties.)
The base for our day-and-a-bit in Guangzhou was the White Swan Hotel, quite a splendid piece of work even if the waterfall inside the main restaurant felt just a shade over the top. In that limited amount of time, we were quickly herded by our local guide Jensen to all the key sights. The Chen family temple was mainly notable for the ridiculously detailed ceramic figures all along the roof, plus a smallish museum with even more ridiculously detailed jade and ivory carvings. The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees was pretty much your standard Buddhist temple, topped off with a nine-storey pagoda that screams "climb me", and then laughs at you as you collapse in a sweaty heap somewhere round the fifth storey, which is where you realise the view from it isn't that great anyway. And our final stop was Yuexiu Park, with a famous sculpture commemorating the appearance of celestial beings riding through the air on five rams, promising good fortune for ever. This was our first encounter with the standard operating procedure of the local guides supplied by the China International Travel Service: every excursion would end in a visit to a local craft shop so that the guide could pick up some sort of commission.
The journey from Guangzhou to Guilin was an internal flight, and a rather nerve-wracking experience. You couldn't help noticing that one of the lights fell off the ceiling at the precise moment we left the ground, closely followed by a rogue can of Coke that dropped off the refreshment trolley and noisily rolled down the aisle. We'd noted that the toilet in the train to Guangzhou was basically a hole in the floor, and wondered if this plane had a similar arrangement. Nobody went to check. But hey, at least we didn't crash, and we made it to the curiously deserted Hotel Universal in good time.
Guilin itself was jolly nice, and we had a sweet female guide called Wong Wei to help show us around. (Frank suggested that as Pete had already got us lost a couple of times, we should start calling him Wrong Wei.) The main reason why Guilin is such a fixture on the tourist route is the Li River: specifically, a four-hour cruise down it that goes from the quaintly descriptive Elephant Trunk Hill (see photo for bonsai version) down to Yangshuo, passing by several other hills with silly names along the way. It sounds like a perfect way to spend a sunny morning, and it was: the only real bugbear was being in an atmosphere of perfect calm and tranquility, but trapped on a boat with a party of Italians who stood in front of you and talked the whole time. We met up with them later that day in the restaurant where we had our evening meal - they all asked for knives and forks. By comparison, we'd had so much chopsticks experience we were daring each other to use them to pick single peanuts off a spinning turntable.
While waiting in Yangshuo for the bus to pick us up, we were introduced to the subtleties of Chinese market trading. The stall owners will generally only know two words of English: "hello" and the name of their product. Hence the surreal cries of "hello t-shirt" and "hello tablecloth" that follow you down the street. If you're interested, you haggle by scribbling numbers down on paper (or, in the more hi-tech territories, by entering numbers on a pocket calculator) until you find an amount the two of you can agree with. This turned out to be useful practice for the evening, as we made our way round Guilin's night markets haggling like crazy.
The rest of Guilin's sights can be more or less compressed into a single morning. The Reed Flute Caves have some of the most staggering natural rock formations you've ever seen. The Chinese believe that all sorts of pictures and signs can be seen inside the rocks, and have a whole series of stories to explain what they mean, along with a lurid technicolor light scheme. (Apparently since I went there, the lighting's been upgraded to include frickin' laser beams.) From there it was off to Fubo Hill, where I suddenly realised that of the six men attending this holiday, five of us had camcorders. Given the opportunity to climb up an incredibly steep hill and take pictures of each other, we lurched into a serious interlude of macho posturing and nearly killed ourselves. Nevertheless, it was a perfect end to our time in Guilin, as you could see virtually all of it from the top of the hill.
From there, it was off by plane to Shanghai, and the contrasts with Guilin were astonishing. Guilin was a relatively poor town with beggars in the streets, while in Shanghai I was staying in a 26-storey-high Sheraton trying to work out which of the double beds in my room I should sleep in. We had just one day in town, and we started as we were to go on: with a shop. Technically, it was a carpet factory, and our guide Zhan spent a fair bit of time explaining the various stages of the carpet making process. But in the end, it was just an excuse to get us into the shop at the end of the factory, where the really detailed - and therefore expensive - stuff is. Across the road was the Yu Yuan Garden, one of those ornamental gardens that the Chinese do so well: and from there it was a quick stroll down to the waterfront area of the Bund (still under construction at the time), where Pete got lumbered with a couple of students trying to practise their English on him. After lunch it was off to the Jade Buddha temple, where the two-metre-long jade icon it takes its name from is guarded by monks who refuse to let you take pictures, forcing me to video a postcard of it.
Then came the point where it became most apparent how stage-managed the holiday was. Having been forced to wait 10-15 minutes at the end of each excursion for the allotted hanging-around-in-a-craft-shop time, we were all keen to make some more serious purchases in town: except that when we got to the main shopping centre, we were dumped at the end of the street that had the big government shop, as opposed to the other end of the street two and a half kilometres away that had all the good shops. We all ended up in a pretty duff mood, and the evening's visit to the Shanghai Acrobats didn't help. The acrobats themselves were pretty good, but there were an awful lot of animal acts - trained elephants and tigers and things, all obviously spliffed up to the eyeballs, and it wasn't very entertaining to watch at all. (I'm not sure if animals still play such a large part in the show nowadays.) At the end of our one day in one of the most potentially exciting cities on the planet, we felt we'd been taken round officially designated highlights without actually getting to see any of the interesting stuff. It's something I'm hoping to rectify later this year.
We made a ludicrously early getaway the next morning - a 5am wakeup call for a 7.15am train to our next stop, Suzhou. It's frequently described (because of its canals) as the Venice of the East, particularly by lazy travel agents. There wasn't any time to rest once we got there, as our local guide Zhuo wanted to finish early to go home and watch the Asian Games on telly. So we were whisked round a variety of places, starting with a silk factory. We then moved on to the Garden Of The Master Of The Nets, a tiny ornamental garden but quite astonishingly varied in its design - apparently named after an 18th century bureaucrat who retired here to become a fisherman. From there it was on to a fan factory and yet another shopping opportunity. It's fascinating to watch the patterns being painted or burned onto the fans, but - it has to be said - not so fascinating as to make you want to pay ten thousand quid for one. Then in rapid succession we covered the Tiger Hill Pagoda, which apparently leans a bit (though none of us could spot it), an embroidery works with yet another shop at the end of it, and finally the beautifully named Garden For Lingering In, which Zhuo - with no apparent trace of irony - tried to rush us through in ten minutes, so he could get back home in time for the Games.
It was another early start the next day as we got the train over to Wuxi, just north of Suzhou. Wuxi translates as 'no tin', as the place used to be famous for a tin mine that finally ran out about two thousand years ago. Their motto goes, "where there is tin, there is fighting: where there is no tin, there is tranquility." The morning was spent checking out what they have instead of tin nowadays, which turned out to be silk, pearls and woollen embroidery. Then we had a bit of a treat in the afternoon, as we took a trip on a dragon boat down the Grand Canal: the longest artificial waterway in the world, allegedly built by "a million people with teaspoons". It's still heavily utilised as a working canal, as well as a tourist route, and during a four hour trip you can see a huge variety of boats using it. Around four in the afternoon, after a couple of relatively painless hours of sailing, we hit something we hadn't really been expecting at all: rush hour. You really need to see the video to discover what that was like. Once the police boat had gone in there to break it up, we just about managed to get away from there safely. We spent the evening back in Suzhou, propping up the bar at the Bamboo Grove Hotel, where the pianist insisted on playing Greensleeves because it was the only English tune she knew.
It was at this point that we started turning nasty towards Pete. And in retrospect, he probably didn't deserve it. We'd been warned well in advance that, to quote the brochure, "travel in China does not always run with clockwork precision": but when we discovered that we'd have to send off our bags to Xian the night before we left ourselves, we only had the Jetsave rep to blame. It didn't help that the next day's journey involved a stopover of a few hours back in Shanghai, where our old mate Zhan was there again to take us through some more unwanted shopping opportunities, including a jade carving works and a silk factory. When we got to the Orient Hotel in Xian, our evening meal was cold, our breakfast hadn't been booked and the hot and cold taps on my shower were the wrong way round. Gloria cheekily suggested we should stop calling Pete our tour manager, and call him our tour mentor instead. I think we all knew deep down he was as much at the mercy of the local guides as the rest of us, but it made it easier for us to handle the problems by having a convenient scapegoat along.
The main problem with Xian - at least for a tourist with a camcorder permanently glued to his face like I was - is that two of its key tourist attractions are plastered with NO PHOTO signs. Either because the flashbulbs will cause damage to the ancient artefacts, or because they want to con you into buying souvenir photos: take your pick. It's a slight disappointment that you can't photograph the Banpo Neolithic Village, the remains of a village site occupied until around 3750BC. However, it's less disappointing that you can't photograph the most famous sight in Xian, the Terracotta Warriors, because it quickly becomes apparent that no camera on earth is capable of doing it justice - they're genuinely stunning, emanating a real sense of ancient history. But you can go to a factory where they manufacture model souvenir warriors, take pictures of those, and pretend that they're the real thing - even getting the chance to pose with them if that's what you want. The other major draw for tourists is the nightly show at the Tang Dynasty Theatre, where they serve food and perform music from that historical era. It's all very touristy, and probably the equivalent of the Olde Englishe medieval banquets that we fleece our tourists with back home. But it all makes for a very enjoyable evening, even though once or twice you could quibble with the authenticity, particularly when they break out the lasers and dry ice.
Other sights are available if you simply must take pictures. There's the Huaqing Pool bathhouse, where army commander Chiang Kai-shek was arrested by his own generals in 1936. There's the Big Goose Pagoda, so called as to distinguish it from the smaller one on the other side of town called the Little Goose Pagoda. (To be honest, by now we were all getting a bit pagodaed out, so we spent more time looking at the farmers' paintings on sale outside - I ended up buying two.) You can also get a good view of the whole city from the top of the 14 kilometres of wall that surrounds it, or wander through the market gawping at the half-dead stuff that's being sold for dinner that evening. We finished with a carefully staged tour of Xian township life, visiting a farmer's cottage and watching the local kindergarten kids sing a song for us. Of course, once they'd done their party piece, we had to do ours, but I've chosen to suppress the video of our tour party murdering Old Macdonald for their pleasure.
It was a nice end to our Xian visit, but the hellacious journey from there to Beijing took some of the shine off it. We ended up rolling into town a couple of hours late around midnight, only to be refused entry to the Holiday Inn because of a booking problem. (We eventually finished up at the nearby Prime Hotel, I think.) This was probably the incident that led to the formation of the Glorious People's Movement Of August '93, at least in my head. Our group's rebellious streak was crystallised by our local guide in Beijing, who I dickishly referred to in my video as 'Money-Grabbing Bitch Queen From The Planet Arse'. We started off well at the Ming Tombs, but the problems started when we headed off to Badaling for the inevitable visit to the Great Wall. MGBQFTPA tried to cut us down to a half hour visit, so she could take us round another factory shop and change our money at extortionate rates: but we screamed a lot and got the visit extended to an hour, which was absolutely worth doing. And for an encore, we also managed to get out of the Chinese meal planned for that evening and go for a Mexican in the hotel restaurant instead. (This was more of an achievement than it appears at first glance: the restaurants on organised tours like these tend to be fairly low grade, so any attempt to go somewhere else is normally an improvement.)
Day two of our Beijing sojourn started with more yelling - MGBQFTPA managed to smuggle a photographer onto our tour bus who tried to sell us photos of ourselves - but to be honest, I think we were all secretly enjoying the conflicts by this stage. Most of the day was focussed around the huge traditional sights of the city - Tiananmen Square (still having a curiously creepy atmosphere four years after the events of 1989), the Forbidden City (sadly looking a lot tattier than it did when they used it in The Last Emperor), and the Temple Of Heaven (the classic example of Ming architecture, and looking damn good). The latter has a glorious array of paths and gates and gimmicks to pass through before you get to see the main temple itself, culminating in a long passageway known as the Stairway To Heaven. Fred decided that at this point in his holiday video, he was going to dub Stairway To Heaven over it: I went counter-intuitive and used D'Yer Mak'er? instead. We finished the day with a Beijing Opera performance, where it turned out I was the only one who enjoyed the whole two-chihuahuas-having-sex-in-a-tin-box musical vibe. You can't argue with it as an acrobatic spectacle, though.
Later that night over beer, Frank pointed out that after two weeks in China, none of us had still got any film of old people out on the streets doing early morning tai chi practice - the traditional Chinese cliche. So we left the hotel at half six on our final morning to try and find some. It wasn't difficult. After being threatened by mad women with swords, we relaxed with a trip to Beijing Zoo. The star attractions are the pandas, though to be honest it didn't look like they were having a fabulous time of it. The zoo's souvenir shop is a treat, though: clockwork pandas, toy machine guns the kids can threaten the animals with, and best of all the combination of a Weeble and a laughing bag that is the Plastic Laughing Buddha. Don't you wish your religion had something like that?
MGBQFTPA attempted to make her presence felt again during our visit to the Summer Palace, a museum of various Imperial bits and bobs. She kept trying to rush us through it at a rate of knots, but we managed to slow her down by the simple tactic of staying behind her. Then when we asked her to take us to the official store, she dumped us at one of her usual ripoff craft shop places. The Glorious People's Movement Of August '93 told her to forget it, and we went off on our own to check out the shops for ourselves. I managed to buy an Andy Lau CD using a combination of bad Mandarin and pointing, and discovered where all the cool Beijing kids hang out, which turned out to be McDonalds. (As I'd never been to Japan at this point, their use of a picture menu for foreign customers seemed revolutionary to me.) In our final act of rebellion, we all boycotted the Peking Duck dinner we'd paid for as part of the holiday, and had our best Chinese meal of the tour in the hotel restaurant. And yes, we were even nice to Pete - after all, we'd got a new scapegoat we could work with.
To quote me from the concluding scene of my holiday video, over an hour and a half after it started: "I've been to the Forbidden City. I've walked the Great Wall Of China. I've ridden the cable cars at Ocean Park. I've seen the Terracotta Warriors. I've been undressed by kings and I've seen some things that a woman ain't supposed to see. But what have we learned?" To be honest, I didn't really know much about China before I went on this trip, and ended up taking a crash course in the nation's recent history courtesy of Harrison Salisbury's excellent book The New Emperors. Seeing just how much China was embracing the idea of Westernisation - and seeing how different parts of China were reacting to it in different ways - was utterly fascinating. Since then, I've been following events from afar with interest. It's amusing to remember that in 1993, the big campaign in the country was a major push to bring the 2000 Olympics to Beijing: based on my personal experience of the city's infrastructure back then, they probably weren't ready for it, but they certainly appeared to have got their act together in time for 2008. Can they still sustain the momentum one year after the Games? I'll be sure to let you know. Being a monkey, and all.