China 1982

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

China 1982

Upon waking up this morning on the train, the rice fields of the undulating countryside around Wuhan had given way to wheat cultivation on the dead flat North China Plain.  On the whole, I’m sorry to say that the scenery was fairly uninteresting all the way into Peking.  Even the cities we passed through (the largest being Shihchiachuang) resembled Stanmore or Enmore from the train.  We missed the Hwang Ho (Yellow River) as we crossed it at 4:00am when it was still dark.

The most interesting part of the train trip was a long talk last night between the four people in our cabin(which included my good friend, Professor Trevor Langford-Smith) and Miss Wu, our national guide.  After exchanging pleasantries for a while (including how impressed she is with my efforts to speak Chinese), we got into a discussion of Chinese politics.  I began by saying I couldn’t understand why China and the USSR were so unfriendly, both being large Communist countries, whereas China and the USA seemed to be good friends these days.  The conversation proceeded from there to touch on the Cultural revolution, Mao’s Little Red Book, the age of world leaders, Taiwan, Afghanistan, and so on.  On the whole, I thought Miss Wu seemed fairly uninformed (perhaps inevitable in a country where the press and the media is all government-controlled), but nonetheless she was quite firm in her belief that China’s government was well on the right trajectory.  She was short on reasons, but strong on faith in the government.  On the whole, it was a most illuminating conversation that provided me with some insight into the thinking of China’s masses (as opposed to the thinking of China’s government, not that the difference is all that great).

Our train pulled into Peking Railway Station, a truly impressive structure.  We had arrived in the political centre of the Middle Kingdom, the city where Chinese people in imperial times regarded as the centre of everything, the city where the universe was divided into its eastern and western halves.  Peking has been the centre of much of the history of the 20th century, and now here I was – standing in this awe-inspiring city.

First things first – we drove from the railway station to lunch, after which we began inspecting this ancient city with a visit to the Temple of Heaven.  This visit focussed on the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where the Emperor used to pray for successful crops each year.  Built in the 1400s with a unique three-tiered round tiled roof, and re-built in the 1880s after a fire caused by a lightning strike, it is built of wood without any nails or glue.  From there we proceeded to visit the Imperial Vault of Heaven, including the Triple Echo Stones, the Echo Wall and the Circular Mound Altar.  Although I’m not really a ‘temples person’ I enjoyed the visit; the architecture was truly beautiful.

Following the Temple of Heaven, we drove to the heart of Peking, Tien An Men Square.  What an emotional experience it was to arrive at this famous place that has featured in so many episodes of world-changing history – the place where Chairman Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the place where mass rallies were held to venerate Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, the place where the masses spontaneously came out to mourn the death of Chao En-lai in early 1976, the place where over a million people gathered for Chairman Mao’s memorial ceremony after his death later in 1976 and which now accommodated the Memorial Hall that held his body in a crystal coffin.  It is the world’s largest square, the place where half a million people can gather at once, and 1.1 million can gather if the nearby roads are closed (as happened for Chairman Mao’s memorial ceremony in 1976).

Our visit to Tien An Men Square was somewhat brief, allowing some time for a wander but nothing more than that, and we were soon heading northwards to our hotel, the sprawling Friendship Hotel in Peking’s Haidian district.  The hotel is certainly large.  Built in the mid-1950s, it consists of five blocks, each with seven stories and about 32 rooms per floor.

Even at this early stage, I can see that Peking is totally different from the other parts of China we have seen.  It has its own architectural style with much of the city being made up of small grey houses in courtyards surrounded by high walls, interspersed by narrow laneways called hutongs that are barely wide enough to fit a car.  It’s a good thing that most people ride bicycles here.  Driving through these areas is somewhat uninformative, though, because all we can see are long lines of 3-metre high bare grey walls.  I’m told that Peking’s residents think it would be quite strange to be able to see another person’s house from the street.  This landscape may be changing though.  There are some neighbourhoods where the courtyard homes are being demolished and replaced with anonymous high-rise housing blocks, especially along the sides of the main roads (leaving swathes of courtyard homes behind the high-rises filling most of the land).

To some extent, Peking resembles Canberra with its proliferation of government buildings.  The people dress more brightly and with more Western fashion than we have seen elsewhere. Unlike the other cities we have seen, the local population is obviously quite accustomed to foreign visitors; we don’t get a second glance here.  The travel arrangements are also more professionally handled. The downside being that we feel like we’ve become part of a well-oiled machine.

We are using bus number 99, and it is not the newest bus in the city.  In Wanxian, they only had one minibus for visitors in the city.  Advertising is more common here in Peking, as are Kodak films and even Coca-Cola.  When we pulled up at the Temple of Heaven, eight other tourist buses were already there.  Large shops selling antiques, handicrafts and souvenirs have been set up at all the scenic spots throughout the city.  I’m really glad we had the opportunity to visit the other parts of China before they become like this too, because if Peking is showing the way forward, it seems inevitable.

Day 14

Peking, China


15 April 1982