I had always thought how wonderful it would be to visit China, but even after I started traveling extensively, a trip there seemed beyond my budget. In 1992 I heard of a first-class tour that was quite inexpensive, so I decided to take it. In August I left San Francisco – next stop Shanghai!
For all the attention we received, the good meals and the superb hotels, I am fully convinced the Chinese government was footing the bill for our airfare. There was no other way this 10-day trip could have been accomplished for the price I paid. Since it was soon after the Tiananmen Square uprising, I think they were eager to get tourism back again.
The superb attention to small details began on our China Air flight. After departure, the hostess handed me a travel kit inside of which was a bar of soap, washcloth, toothpaste, toothbrush and comb. In addition she gave me a pair of socks so I could be comfortable without shoes. Flying west we had daylight the entire trip, with five consecutive free movies to help pass the time when we were unable to sleep.
Mr. Wei, our guide for the entire trip, met us at the Shanghai airport. When our group finally assembled and we got through immigration and customs, we piled in a bus, nodding to each other. By the end of our tour we’d probably all be good friends. The group seemed as fascinated as I by the sights in Shanghai.
“It is getting late and by the time we get to the Park Hotel the restaurant will be closed,” said Mr. Wei, “so we are going to stop shortly for dinner at the `As You Wish’ Restaurant. If you are not yet ready to experience authentic Chinese food, you can order Americanized Chinese meals, such as chow mein and chop suey.” We all smiled, but said nothing. Every one looked exhausted after the long trip, for many had come from the east coast to San Francisco. I was lucky–I only had to fly from Los Angeles. Most of us ate the Americanized Chinese meal; there would be time later to sample authentic Chinese food.
After our meal, where we did manage to chat a bit with each other, we climbed back into the bus. In a short while we pulled up in front of the Park Hotel. It looked just as luxurious as pictured in the brochure. Yes, I thought, I’m going to like this trip.
The next morning, from my room on the 24th floor, I took pictures, one looking down on a busy city street, and another of ships on the Yangtze River. I’m glad I took them for, when I later began taking pictures during our tour of the city, nothing happened. The flashing light on my camera did not appear, and the film didn’t automatically advance. I tried replacing the batteries, but even this didn’t help. I was devastated. Here I was in China, for the first and, probably, the only time, with no way to record my memories. The Great Wall was the one thing I really wanted to capture on film. Even though I’d heard it was a difficult climb, I hoped to be able to do it. But no one at home would believe I’d managed to scale it if I didn’t have pictures to prove it. And, while most of the unique ideas for the manufacture of goods, such as cheap throwaway cameras, seemed to originate in Taiwan, I couldn’t find that kind of camera, at least not where we were allowed to shop.
But a broken camera wasn’t going to spoil my trip. I wouldn’t be able to take any pictures, but I could still look at the bustling city out the window of the bus, and watch the thousands of Chinese hurrying about their daily lives. I glimpsed some of the seven million bicycles darting in and out between cars, buses, and trucks, and wondered why there were not more accidents. I tried to mentally capture the things that made this busy, overpopulated city so different from other large cities I’d visited. I watched children riding on the backs of these bicycles, old men pedaling tri-carts loaded with melons or bundles of wheat. I saw hundreds of black bikes parked at the side of a building, each looking like the one right next to it, and wondered how anyone would ever be able to find their own when they returned. (I often had trouble finding where I’d parked my car at a shopping mall). I noticed laundry hanging on bamboo poles out of second-story windows, above stores, and even on rope strung between two trees. I watched old men hunched down in a circle on the sidewalk playing cards or mah jongg, and I marveled at their continued interest in the game, since no gambling is allowed in China. And over the entire city, the scent of incense permeated the air.
Out of the moving bus I observed policemen standing in the middle of the road directing traffic, a seemingly impossible job. I delighted in seeing children playing the same games children seemed to play all over the world–a similar form of hopscotch and hitting a ball with a wooden stick–not quite baseball, but from the looks on the boys’ faces they would soon be ready to join a team. These pictures I tried to store in my memory, knowing there would be none on film.
We stopped at the Jade Buddhist Temple where I witnessed a Buddhist ceremony. Six monks, in saffron-colored robes, chanted as they walked around a room in the Temple, while one monk beat a drum. Large pictures of two deceased men stood on a table. Family members followed the monks in a circle for two hours to honor the dead, and to help the deceased into heaven.
After a visit to a jade factory, where some of our group purchased small jade statues, we were dropped off at the Park Hotel for a brief rest and a drink. This was just the first full day of our visit to China. I was soon to learn that China International Travel Service, the sponsors of our trip, wanted us to see as much as possible in our short visit, and so kept us busy each hour of every day. We seldom had a short respite such as this afternoon at the Park Hotel.
Arriving at an airport was never easy or quick on group tours. Each person, and each piece of luggage, had to be accounted for, so it took awhile before everything was in order and we could walk out of the airport to our waiting bus. By the time we arrived at the Kunhen Hotel in Beijing, it was almost midnight. As tired as I was it seemed an interminable wait until our keys were handed out to us. And mine was the very last one.
“Here’s your key,” said Mr. Wei, “you are in room number 1920.”
“That’s nice,” I replied in a sleepy voice, “that happens to be the year I was born.”
“That’s good luck,:” he answered. I smiled and took the key.
Before I tumbled into bed, I glanced at my camera and noticed it had somehow moved from picture #4 to picture #5. Even though it had taken all day to do this, I decided to take the camera with me the next day, for we were going to the Great Wall. I still hoped I could get at least one photo.
When I removed the cover in the morning, my camera was blinking at me, ready to go into action.
I did not try to figure out what happened. I’m no camera expert. Someone told me an experience like this can sometimes occur in cold weather, but it was hot and humid in Beijing. All I cared about was that I could begin taking pictures again, and the Great Wall was a good place to start. (to be continued)