China in 1987 – Beijing to Xian

In June of 1987 I received an invitation from the Chinese State Economic Information Centre to conduct a GIS software training class in Beijing. By good fortune I had enough miles from Delta Airlines for two free First Class tickets on Japan Airlines. So I invited my good friend Leslie to join me for our first trip to China. The flight from LA to Hong Kong and on to Beijing was beyond our expectations, with incredible personal service by the young Japanese flight attendants. (During the dinner service one flight attendant was serving lobster bisque from a large silver tureen next to our seat when a drop of the bisque dripped over the edge of the bowl. We thought nothing of it, but immediately the chief purser stepped in, removed the bowl with the drip, and proceeded to instruct the young attendant in how to fill the bowl correctly!) The service aboard Japan Airlines remained impeccable throughout our journey. Arriving in Beijing we were met at the airport by Dr. Liang and Mr. Dai who would be our hosts and guides for the next two weeks. We were taken to the Yangjing Hotel near the center of the city and a few blocks from the site where I would be conducting the training class. The hotel was pretty basic, designed mainly for Chinese businessmen and not necessarily for foreign tourists. But it was clean and had two restaurants, and although very few of the hotel staff spoke English we managed pretty well.

Our room at Yanjing Hotel in Beijing
Our room at Yanjing Hotel in Beijing

My first day of training was in a hot, humid room where the windows were open to the street noise and large fans attempted in vain to move the stale air around. For my lectures I had only an old, poorly lit overhead projector and a dusty chalk board. (I’m certain that many of the students in the back of the room could neither see my slides nor hear me, but they may not have been able to read or understand much English anyway.) There were very few breaks, so speaking continuously for 6 hours every day became exhausting! In addition, the PC that I was assured would be provided never showed up, even on the very last day, despite Dr. Liang’s promises every morning that it would be there tomorrow. So I had no way to demonstrate any of the things I was lecturing about. For me it would have been terribly boring had I been in the audience, so what must it have been like for the poor Chinese students? Half of the time I had to resort to using the dusty old chalkboard, so at the end of each day I was covered in chalk dust. (After the first day the thought of two weeks of this was almost unbearable!) Thankfully, every evening after my marathon lecture, I had a leisurely walk back to the hotel and relaxed with a cold gin and tonic, prepared by Leslie. She spent her days being escorted around Beijing, seeing some of the tourist sites and shopping in the traditional open air markets. What I wouldn’t have given to be a tourist at this point. Every morning Leslie and I shared the “western breakfast” (fried egg, toast, fruit, and tea) in the hotel before I headed to the Institute to do my daily lecture. In the evenings we exchanged notes about the day and shared dinner in the hotel, with our favorite dish being slow cooked pork with young garlic tips, which was delicious.

Finally Sunday came, my only day off, and Dr. Liang took us to visit the ancient tombs of the first Qin dynasty and then to the Great Wall. Great_Wall_of_China  As we walked along the top of the Great Wall, the views were nothing short of spectacular as the wall stretched far beyond the horizon in both directions.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China
Leslie with Dr. Liang and Mr. Dai
Leslie with Dr. Liang and Mr. Dai

And amongst the incredible experience of the Great Wall, there were other experiences that were less memorable, such as the hot beer and soda in the car’s trunk at lunchtime, and the absolutely atrocious toilets at the visitor center. They were little more than gross holes in the floor. (Such was the ever present dichotomy that defined China) But the hospitality of our Chinese hosts was genuine and almost overwhelming, especially when were invited to the very traditional banquet given in our honor. It was always a very formal and structured affair with the same protocol each time. The meal always included a strange combination of delicious dishes and disgusting “delicacies” such as boiled Sea Cucumber which has the absolute worst taste and slimy texture, but is always one of the many dishes served. Despite the culinary challenges, our hosts were delighted that we had at least tried every dish. However, at the first banquet I made a valiant effort to finish the disgusting Sea Cucumbers I had been served by my host, only to find more of them on my plate. After that I always left some of them on my plate so I wouldn’t be served seconds. On the morning of the last day of the training class Dr. Liang took me to the “computer store” where he promised that we would pick up the PC that I would be able to use to demonstrate everything I had lectured about for the past two weeks. We were to meet Mr. Wong who was trying to make a Japanese PC work. Our taxi got lost on the way, and at one point I had to sit in the car, roasting in the hot sun for half an hour while Dr. Liang tried to get directions to the “store”. We drove into many dead end alleys, and even through a couple of back yards with laundry hanging on the line before arriving at the computer store, only to find out Mr. Wong had been unsuccessful! The “garage style” workshop was located in a small crowded room in some nameless institute where a large number of “technicians” worked to disassemble old PC’s and then reassemble a variety of different components into a new PC. Watching all of this reminded me of an old Marx Brothers movie! Despite countless attempts they were unable to make a PC capable of running the GIS software, even though I had been reassured countless times that there would be a PC for my training class to demo the software. (It was at this point I began to realize that in the Chinese culture no one likes to say NO!) So after two exhausting weeks my training class finally came to an end and I looked forward to becoming a tourist. That evening we were invited to join the Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences for a traditional dinner of the famous “Peking Duck” at his favorite restaurant near Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen_Square  The dinner was fabulous and afterwards we all walked into the enormous square where thousands of people had gathered to enjoy the warm summer night. The view of the main gate to the Forbidden City was awesome in the glow of the sunset. Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Entrance to the Forbidden City
Entrance to the Forbidden City
Symbol of the Emporer in the Forbidden City
Symbol of the Emperor in the Forbidden City

The next day we were especially looking forward to an overnight train journey to the ancient city of Xian in northwest China that had been arranged by Dr. Liang as a thank you for the training class. Our guides for the trip were Mr. Jin and his wife Ma, a young couple who worked at the academy. We arrived at the massive Beijing Central Station with just barely enough time to push our way through the crowd and board train #279 bound for Xian. Soon we found our First Class sleeping car #7 (aka “soft sleeper”) that was conveniently next to the dining car which was reserved for First Class passengers and train staff.

Train #279 bound for Xian
Train #279 bound for Xian
Lunch with Jin and Ma in the dining car
Lunch with Jin and Ma in the dining car

As we began to settle into our compartment, an attendant came by with a set of pillow, blanket, towel and soap for each of us, as well as a large pot of hot water for making tea. Soon we were rolling along, heading west through the hills covered with rice fields and small villages, a very peaceful scene. Then all of a sudden the loudspeaker above our heads began blaring out an announcement followed by loud martial music at full volume! As I began to wonder how long this would last, I spotted what looked like a volume control knob with no name on it, but as I rotated it the volume went down so I turned it just as far as it would go and we were spared the military band music at last. Later on I walked through the train and found very crowded cars of “hard seats” (straight backed wooden benches) with narrow aisles crammed with people, boxes, bags, and anything else they could bring on board. Beyond the hard seats were the “hard sleepers”, with long rows of 4 bunks stacked one on top of the other, very much like a military barracks. At the end of each car was an old cast iron coal burning stove to boil water for tea. Returning to our First Class compartment I was really thankful for the luxury we had during our 22 hour journey! After dinner in the dining car, Leslie and I spent the evening trying to learn a few words of Chinese from Mr. Jin and Ma. We had a lot of fun sorting out the words from the Chinese/English dictionary as the train sped into the gathering darkness. At one point before we all retired for the night, the train made a short stop in a small station somewhere west of Beijing and immediately a large group of vendors descended upon the platform selling all manner of food and drink. From our open window, in the midst of all the activity, I heard the sound of bells approaching. Then two men passed by, each carrying a bundle of small bamboo cages tied to long poles, running in a smooth gait that was perfectly in time with the bouncing of the bundles. The sound of the bells in the bundles of bamboo cages was beautiful and haunting, when all of a sudden I realized there were crickets in the cages, not bells! But what a magical moment it was.

Early the next morning we awoke to a totally different landscape of deep yellow earth and red brick houses along the great Yellow River valley. Many of the houses were actually built into the cliffs on either side of the valley. Further on we began to see several old and a few new steam locomotives pulling long freight trains.

Old steam locomotive still in operation
Old steam locomotive still in operation

Seeing the steam locomotives still in operation, as well as large modern tractors working alongside peasants plowing fields with oxen just reinforced my impression of China as being a strange but fascinating land of contrasts and contradictions. As our train sped westward I felt like we were seeing a very long, narrow strip of the Chinese landscape.

View of the Yellow River Valley from the train
View of the Yellow River Valley from the train

Shortly after our lunch in the dining car, featuring boiled pork tripe and dumplings, we finally arrived in Xian. (As the train had approached Xian, one of the train porters sat down beside me and began to practice his English on me.) By the time we pulled into the station it was very hot and humid, and feeling particularly sweaty, I was looking forward to a nice shower in the hotel. We were met by 4 people from the Xian Research Institute of Surveying and Mapping, and after a long walk through the crowded station we were taken to the Scarlet Bird Hotel. Xian No sooner had we taken the luggage to our room than I was “invited” to a short meeting to discuss our “schedule”. As I sat there feeling like I was in a steam bath, I was suddenly informed about my “lecture” that afternoon at the Institute – surprise, surprise! Not having been told about this in Beijing I didn’t bother to bring any of my slides or notes of any kind. So while Leslie joined Mr. Jin and Ma for an afternoon of sightseeing, I had to spend it giving a lecture about GIS to 50 staff, using nothing more than a dusty old chalkboard! (This was not the trip I had imagined) But all was not lost, for after having delivered my 4 hour lecture on the chalkboard, I was allowed to return to the hotel and take a shower before the gala banquet that evening. Once again the dreaded Sea Cucumbers appeared on the table, despite the fact that we were almost 2000 miles from the ocean. Among the “local” delicacies were Camel Tendons, and the only way I can describe them is to simply say that old shoe leather would be more tender and taste better. But the highlight of the evening was the “surprise” dish at the end, for which we were given specific instructions about how to eat it. We were to quickly pick up a piece of it from the first bowl with our chopsticks, then quickly dip it into the second bowl, followed by a quick dip in the third bowl before popping it into our mouth. These instructions made it sound like another Chinese delicacy like roasted grasshoppers or fried crickets, so to say we were a bit apprehensive would be an understatement. Soon the surprise dish arrived and we followed our hosts in grabbing a piece from the first bowl, dipping it quickly in the second and third bowls, and then popping it into our mouth. The taste and sensation were absolutely the most amazing culinary experience of our entire time in China! So what was it you ask? In the first bowl were large cubes of chilled watermelon. The second bowl had hot honey and the third bowl was filled with ice water. So by the time the “surprise” reached our mouth it was an explosion of sweet, hot, icy flavor that was to die for! And all along we had been imagining roasted grasshoppers or fried crickets – what a beautiful surprise.

The next day we were treated to a tour of the zoo and an encounter with a rare brown Panda. But the absolute highlight was a visit to the ancient tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, where thousands of terra cotta statues of the Emperor’s army were buried over 2000 years ago and only recently discovered by local farmers in 1974. Since then the Chinese government has been excavating the site and restoring the statues. Terracotta Army Standing on the observation platform overlooking the tomb, the Terra Cotta Army seemed to be ghostly figures slowly rising from the earth after 2000 years asleep. Besides the immense scale of the tomb, one of the most unique aspects is the fact that the face of each and every clay warrior is different, having been modeled after the real warriors of that time. And amazingly it’s believed that only a small portion of the tomb has been discovered. The site has been very carefully preserved and it certainly ranks as one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Tomb of Emperor Qin in Xian
Tomb of Emperor Qin in Xian
Warriors of the Terra Cotta Army
Warriors of the Terra Cotta Army

The following day we were taken to the airport for our flight back to Beijing on CAAC (Civil Air Administration of China), the one and only Chinese airline. The flight was scheduled to depart at 1:30pm, but as luck would have it we had to endure several delays. The terminal was very basic, having only one small gift shop and a tiny café, so we did what so many of the Chinese were doing, sitting on the floor playing bridge, a popular card game in China. Finally, 3 hours later we were told to board the old Russian jet that had been sitting outside on the tarmac in the hot sun. There was a mad rush of people running to the plane and by the time Leslie and I stepped on to the plane there were only two seats remaining and they were in the very last row, next to a flight attendant in a jump seat across the aisle from the toilet. As we took our seats we immediately became aware of the stifling heat in the cabin, obviously a result of the plane sitting in the hot sun for 3 hours. Seeing our sweaty faces, the flight attendant picked up the “barf bag” from the seat back pocket and began using it as a fan, motioning us to do the same. (perhaps this was the A/C?) At last, as the flight took off I noticed that all of the emergency instructions were in Russian. Shortly after we were airborne, the flight attendants served a choice of a warm orange flavored drink or a cup of hot tea, along with a piece of hard candy. My first thought was that this was the prelude to a meal, but for the remainder of the 3 ½ hour flight there was nothing else served. So by the time we landed in Beijing that evening we were famished. However, when we got to the Friendship Hotel near Beijing University the one and only restaurant was closed and the only food available was a small dish of cold noodles and rice. (such was travel in China during 1987)

Friendship Hotel, Beijing
Friendship Hotel, Beijing

So the next day when we boarded the Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo and settled into our First Class seats, the experiences of the past 3 weeks slowly began to mellow around the edges, aided by the chilled glass of champagne. Despite the challenges and sometimes less than comfortable conditions, the first experience of being in China is one that has stayed with me. Over the next 25 years I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to China several times and witness the tremendous changes that time brought to the country. But the 1987 trip remains as the one I remember most!

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