Friday, December 9, 2011

Let's start with something easy!

I'm 24 years old. I've never been overseas before. My only travel experiences as a child and young adult have been road trips in Australia. I'd stayed with friends and family, I'd done a lot of camping, I'd frequented quite a few backpackers' hostels between Sydney and Cairns and I'd even done a few weekends in budget holiday cabins. I'm feeling pretty nervous.

Alongside me is my mum, veteran of two odd years travel back in the fifties, when she'd taken the boat to England, worked a few jobs in London in order to travel through Britain and the Continent, then spent a further year working in Canada. Mum's not fazed at all.

I was leaving Australia to travel the world, with no return date. I had a one way ticket to Hong Kong, then onto Bangkok. There I planned to find a cheap ticket to Kathmandu, where I would join an overland tour to London. But first on the agenda was China.

Yes China! Mum had wanted to visit China back in her journeying days, but back in the fifties China was closed to the outside world. Then in 1979 she opened her doors to the West, and a steady stream of international investors and tourists began to arrive. Travel was difficult. The trains were rundown, the road system was almost non existent, the planes were Russian and the Chinese Communist government continued to restrict where tourists could and couldn't go, where they could stay, and what currency they could use. By the time we arrived in 1989 there were less restrictions, but it was still a very difficult thing to navigate the bureaucracy and get where you wanted to go.

For all the above reasons we decided to book a tour, using a tour agency based in Sydney, which arranged guides, accommodation and transfers. For 18 days we were to join a fully supported tour to visit Guangzhou, cycle through the Guangdong Province countryside, fly to Guilin and travel down the river Li to Yangshuo, visit Xian then on to Beijing. After 4 days in Beijing seeing all the sights, we were to add on a further 10 days of self guided travel. Aside from our accommodation and transfers, we'd find our own way around for a further 4 days in Beijing, 2 days in Shanghai, and a couple of days each in Suzhou and Hangzhou. Then we'd fly back to Hong Kong and mum and I would head our separate ways.

China back then was really hard work. Very few people spoke English and Caucasian tourists were a huge tourist attraction. Chinese people have little concept of personal space so they touch you anywhere, and take your possessions to inspect and pass around to their friends whilst laughing and talking in a language you don't understand. We felt like prize zoo exhibits in a very cramped enclosure, and when we left China after a month we were so glad to leave. It was only when I returned to China in 2008, to a very different place indeed, that I realised I had in fact been deeply traumatised by that initial visit, and was kicking myself that it had taken me so long to return. China today, although not as easy as places like Thailand, is a fairly easy place to travel in, now that most of those past restrictions have been lifted. And although the cityscapes and people's clothing have westernised, China continues to be a place of amazing beauty, fascinating history and friendly people. Though a lot less "in your face" than back then.

The morning we leave Sydney my mother develops her first ever asthma attack. She boards a plane feeling wheezy, short winded and very unwell. And when we arrive in Hong Kong she throws her cigarettes away forever. My first job is to get us to a hotel, because we've been delayed in Melbourne 5 hours, and we arrive in Honkers at 2am. No friendly tour agent to meet us at that time, so we jump in a share taxi and make our way to HK Island via the tunnel and a drop off in Kowloon. I'm on red alert. My mum's wheezing like a steam train and that flag fall was 30HKD when I'd heard it was only 6.50. So when we get to our destination I refuse to give our man more than 50 dollars (plus tunnel toll) and successfully avoid my first overseas scam. But at the time I thought even that was a ripoff.

Later that morning I find mum a local health clinic and doctor, get her loaded up with antibiotics and puffers, leave her back at the hotel and head out to purchase a new pair of spectacles. I'd heard that optical services were cheap in Hong Kong, so I took my prescription in and a few hours later picked up my new purchase. And I did all this within 24 hours of arriving in my first overseas country. But it was only Hong Kong after all.

Back at the hotel mum's getting cold feet and thinking about going home. Well she is having a rather hard time breathing! But her daughter's a doctor and assures her that she'll get better with medication and time, and this trip has been so lovingly planned. We agree she probably won't be doing any cycling, something I later discover was never on the cards anyway. She acquiesces to the bullying of her able bodied travel companion and joins me in meeting our one other tour participant, a geologist from Perth called Alex. He's a nice friendly guy, and over the next 10 days becomes increasingly desperate to win my affections. Mum and I unfortunately gang up on him, poor chap, as he really wasn't my type, and far too old at 42. "Yuck!" I'm only just out of nappies remember!

From Hong Kong, we take the train to Guangzhou, where we are met by our Chinese tour guide.
That's the next story.


  1. Glad to know I'm not the only one who struggled in China! I was there a while back (about 11 years ago) and had a hard time. I was in Guangzhou for a night (ate dog without realizing it). I then taught in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. It was tricky there, too. No pinyin--just characters. When I needed to go shopping, etc., I had to go with my students. Otherwise it was almost impossible. Once I got to Shanghai, it was better. And Beijing, of course, was much easier.

  2. Hi Lisa, thanks for popping in. Sadly, pinyin never really took off so even now you see it rarely. Ha ha, you ate dog, we were told what we were eating wasn't dog, but it sure didn't look like pork. That must have been pretty tough living like that for a whole term, we were only there a month and were so glad to leave at the end of it.
    We hated Shanghai, but it was not the place it is now...