China 1982

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

China 1982

If you don’t count my honeymoon in Norfolk Island in 1976, this was my first overseas trip – and what a trip it was.  Destination China, just five and a half years after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong and the end of the tumultuous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.  “Go to China now”, they said, “before it all changes”.  How right ‘they’ were.  China may have already moved on from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution by April 1982, but it hadn’t yet begun its radical transformation from an impoverished socialist economy – the “sick man of Asia” as it was often still called – into the economic powerhouse that we see today.

I had been a Sinophile for many years, probably triggered while I was in high school by the flickering black-and-white images that appeared on the television news each evening of Red Guards overturning and destroying everything that was considered “old” in China (except the leadership of the Communist Party of course).  For me as a teenager, it looked as though the world’s most populous country had gone mad as it embarked on a brave experiment to shape a new society among a quarter of the world’s population.  My interest was hooked.  And now I was to see it for myself, on what turned out to be the first of more than 80 trips I have subsequently made to the People’s Republic of China, or as the Chinese characters for “China” are literally translated, the “Middle Kingdom” or “Central Country”.

In 1982, individual travel into China was still impossible; everyone had to travel; as part of an officially invited group.  So for this, my first foray into China, I joined a group study tour organised by the Geographical Society of New South Wales under the leadership of veteran tour leader, Mr John Shaw.  I was so inspired by John’s leadership that three and a half years later I was leading study tours for the Geographical Society myself.

In 1982, almost everyone who entered China did so by walking across the railway bridge from Hong Kong.  The Geographical Society’s itinerary was especially attractive for me because it entered China through the seldom-used once-a-fortnight flight from the Burmese capital city of Rangoon into Kunming in south-west China.  But to be honest, I would have been happy to get into China via any and every route possible with the possible exception of parachuting.

The cost for the 23-day itinerary was A$2,530, which included air fares to and from Australia, all internal travel, meals and accommodation in China (as well as Thailand and Burma), all entry fees and all airport transfers.  For a young married man with a pregnant wife, I didn’t think it was cheap at the time, but now I see it as one of the great bargains of my life.  The group comprised 28 people of whom I was the youngest (at age 28 years old).

And so the big day arrived, Friday, 2 April 1982. Like an excited young boy I watched my Qantas Boeing 747–200 pull into the gate at Sydney Airport.  This was the plane that was to carry me to Bangkok, Thailand, our first stop. It was the first time I had ever stepped into a plane large enough to have two aisles.  The tiny movie screen at the front of the cabin that I could watch while eating my airline food made me feel as though I was in heaven (I’m still quite easy to please on that score!).

It was after dark when the plane arrived in Bangkok. My initial impression off the airport staff in Bangkok was that they looked like a cross between US Army GIs over-endowed with gold braid and Tokyo riot police.  The 22 km drive to the Indra Regent Hotel was fascinating, although unfortunately too dark for photos being 10pm at night by the time we arrived.

We move to the present tense.  The hotel seems quite luxurious, and certainly better than I expected.  We are on the 4th floor, and the view is not bad at all.  “Indra” seems a strange name for a hotel in a Buddhist country, being a Hindu deity.  However, in the swirl of so many new experiences, it is somewhat comforting to see that Thais drive on the same (left) hand side of the road as we do – when they’re driving legally, that is.

Apparently Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands while we were in the air, claiming that they are sovereign Argentine territory known as Las Malvinas.  That could get interesting.

(The diary notes for this trip are slightly edited versions of the longhand letters I wrote and posted to my wife, Di, every day while I was on the study tour.  Please note that through this travel diary I have used the place names that were used in 1982.  Several of these names have since changed).

Day 1

Sydney to Bangkok


2 April 1982