Sunday, December 11, 2011

Were we a front?

March 1989. A fledgling democracy movement is spreading its wings. In less than 3 months time tens of thousands of young students and pro democracy demonstrators will be brutally gunned down by the Chinese Army in Tienanmen Square, the rest will be rounded up and imprisoned, the ringleaders tortured and summarily executed. But today that shameful episode in Chinese history fails to rate a mention.

Our Chinese tour company was China Youth Travel Service, government sanctioned, with most of our guides being recent university graduates with good English language skills. But there were only 3 participants: Mum and myself, and Alex, the sleazy geologist from Perth. In China we had a national guide, "Michael", and in each location we had a driver and local guide. And Alex only joined us for 10 days, so for the final 8 days mum and I had our own private tour. Not bad hey?

We wondered about that. Why did the trip go ahead with such a small group? It was an expensive trip, especially in comparison with the cost to travel independently, and perhaps everyone was making enough of a cut anyway? But mum's theory, made later, after the June massacre, was that we were a front, a way for our guide to legitimately travel without drawing the attention of the Communist Party spies. It certainly explains the all night meetings with "other students" wherever we went. And the number of times we had to wake Michael up in order not to miss our plane. I often wonder what happened to Michael, whether he died alongside all those others on that fateful day in June, or ended his days in front of a firing squad or maybe managed to gain asylum overseas....

The train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was uneventful. It was packed with Chinese taking consumer goods - electrical equipment mostly - to the mainland, and then they bought up all the duty free grog and cigarettes on offer as well. We spent the trip watching the scenery change from washing hanging off the balconies of every tenement block in densely populated Kowloon to modern apartment blocks in the New Territories, also heavily festooned with laundry. Once across the barbed wire and sentries at the border the land changed to intensive cultivation, interspersed with shoddy half built houses which increased in number and shoddiness as we approached Guangzhou. First stop lunch, our first experience of authentic Cantonese cuisine, and our first experience of the sheer horror of the Chinese communal toilet.

For the benefit of those who are yet to experience this wonder of Chinese ingenuity, Chinese public toilets have door-less partitions approx 2 feet high with a long gutter running the length of the establishment. You go into your partitioned area, straddle the gutter and squat down to do your business. You try not to look at everyone else, because yes, you can see who else is busy crapping, and whatever you do, you don't look down. That's where the overwhelming stench comes from, where all your and everyone else's excretions for the last two hundred years is fermenting away, a few feet below you. Plus the ones that didn't quite make it! If you are extremely lucky someone regularly hoses it out, but more often than not, luck is not on your side. As a general piece of advice, it's best to go to the toilet BEFORE a meal, if you get my drift...

Those squat jobs still exist all over China, particularly in rural areas, where they'll hang over an irrigation channel so your waste contributes to the next crop, but in the big cities they've installed a lot of nice normal loos, even Eco loos, and almost all hotels have western toilets. Here's my favourite: it was pristine, and when you stood up it bagged your crap, blasted a bit of cold air around and made ready for the next user. Not sure all that plastic was environmentally protective though....

Toilets aside, the joy of China is indisputably its food. Our days revolved around it. Sumptuous breakfast followed by some sightseeing, followed by a huge lunch of countless different dishes, a bit more sightseeing, then time to stuff ourselves yet again. It was difficult to work out where we'd fit in time to actually see some sights, as our guides were always making haste to get us to the next restaurant. We would taste a little of every dish, they were all so delicious, but we were bulging at the seams! We did once have a tense moment over one of the dishes, after spying dog meat in the market.

Even with all those meal stops, we managed to spend 3 days cycling in Guangdong Province, along quiet roads with little traffic, where we were a very new sight for the locals. We visited Seven Star Crags, where we took a boat trip through an underground river, played the black market and got to buy and let off an obscene amount of rockets and firecrackers. Then we went back for more! Kids in a candy shop, only a little more explosive...

Following our leisurely bike interlude, mum staying firmly rooted in the van, still wheezing away in the dank humid weather, we flew to Guilin, home to the mist shrouded karst scenery immortalised on numerous tacky Chinese paintings the world over. I believe Guilin has changed a lot, so here's a panorama I scanned and edited from some original photographs taken from one of the hills above the river.

Next we take a ferry to my first backpacker ghetto: Yangshuo.

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