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Hubris and Wonder in China 1986 - #1 - A Trio of Maps and a Challenge

In 1986 you could do the bootleg thing – meet a guy in a café and slide an envelope of money to him, he slides you two round-trip tickets to China issued under someone else’s name. Granted, there were visas and passports but the swap at the café was just the first of many incidents that broke what was my own convention, defied my understanding of how it was done, and made it a trip that started out with hubris and wound up filled with wonder.

That was my first trip to China and now, in 2016, I am returning, though just for a quick touchdown in Chengdu after flying nonstop in the United Airlines “Dream Machine,” (though since I am traveling coach I am sure it will not be that dreamy.) And my ultimate destination is the occupied zone of Tibet, which ensures another unique view of life in China. These are things I remember from the initial trip 30 years ago, recounted in three blog posts...

This first post: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

This was the time before Google Maps and Google Translate, even before the Internet and cell phones, when an intrepid traveler had a guidebook and maybe pulled the pages out after she’d been to a place, ostensibly to lighten her load but perhaps also to make herself appear more savvy by holding a tattered and partial book. Maybe it made her look worldly, no longer in need of advice because she had been there done that. It was a time when travel normally involved a lot of advance planning but as I mentioned this is a story of hubris. Going to China before the Tiananmen Square demonstration for democracy – a country that was rarely visited and home to an extremely difficult language -- I had decided there was no chance that I would be able to learn enough phrasing to get around so I created flashcards, photocopying the guidebook’s section on common phrases and putting the English versions on the reverse side of the card, thinking that I could point to something. My journey required three maps; one map that was in Chinese, another that had English on the front with phonetic Chinese on the back. (I later discovered--desperate in the back of a cab-- that at least one of the maps was inaccurate. I said my request in English and then phonetic Chinese, but it was to a place that bore no resemblance to the name on the map.)

But as I mentioned, this is a story of hubris and wonder and so having lived in Europe for three years, I was convinced that only the uncool went on tours, that I could do China the way I have done Spain, France, and England: go somewhere without plans or reservations, wander around town until I found a picturesque neighborhood and pick a nearby little hotel next to a little café and make that my home base. Of course even that technique had a learning curve: I learned the hard way that immediately after checking in, one should grab easy to produce evidence of the location in the local language – a business card or a pack of matches (another throwback as smoking was not yet frowned upon.) In Spain, a traveling companion and I (the comedian Kevin McAleer) got a hotel (we had to pretend to be married, surreptitiously under the check-in counter I slipped my grandmother’s ring with its tiny chip of a diamond onto my left hand, spur of the moment sleight-of-hand, we muttered assurances of matrimony) and then to set off exploring the town. But we completely forgot where the hotel was and became so lost and desperate that at one point, standing in front of a demolition site, we seriously considered crawling into a corner of the rubble to sleep.) Though the seat-of-the-pants technique is still my favorite way to travel, I discovered the hard way that it was not appropriate for China.

What drove me to choose China? It seemed the most challenging place to go and this thinking had driven my travel plans before. After college I had taken my LSATs and scored well enough to apply to a half a dozen law schools but when the application left room for an essay on “why I want to attend law school” or perhaps it was “why I want to practice law” to this day I can see myself throwing them into a small wastepaper basket in my kitchen, convinced that ‘they would turn me into a pin-stripe woman,’ as if they had the power to fashion my personality against my will. So what to do now, I thought? After a brief stint teaching in Harlan Kentucky (which is a story for another day), I decided the most frightening thing to do was to go to Europe alone. I’m not sure how I adopted this “do what frightens you most” philosophy of life but it has stuck with me and driven me to work on my fear of horses (mildly successful), my fear of scuba diving (a total failure), my anxiety over singing in public (stay tuned, no pun intended.) I packed a bag smaller than the purse I now carry, told my mother I was going for one year, knowing I would stay for two, and staying instead for three.

But the China trip was different: I was in a new relationship and for some reason we decided to take that same challenging approach to the relationship – throwing everything we possibly could at it. Three months after we started dating we decided to both quit smoking: did we honestly believe that if we could tolerate each other through the nicotine-detox nasties that we had a shot at a lasting relationship? Three months after that we traveled to Communist China with no reservations. What did we think arduous travel would reveal?

We flew out with no reservations whatsoever and I was nonplussed: there was no direct flight to China at that point, so first we flew from San Francisco to Guam and from Guam we got into the Chinese airline. Their ill-fitting uniforms looked as if they had been designed 20 years ago which would be another constant during the trip – everything was that particular green that was so popular in the 1950s; all the advertisements and the signs of the shops were from the 1950s as if time had completely stood still. But, back to the plane. The plane ride seemed like any other until they put down a plate of food – yes, another difference: this was a time when they still served food on planes – but I think they had put the tray through the microwave because when they took the plastic wrap off of it, the little cube of Jell-O was completely liquid. The sandwich, which supposedly was tuna, had a quarter inch of tuna salad only at the very edge of the white bread triangle – the appearance but not the substance of a proper sandwich. And it was the first example that proved a key lesson for this trip: you do not always get what you pay for or ask for. Frequently you get the semblance of it, and approximation. The look of the thing does not guarantee the provision of thing. Vigilance was to be required on all fronts.

Cosmopolitan City, Flying Money

Our first stop was Shanghai and the travel book claimed that it was the most cosmopolitan part of China. I felt ready for what was ahead: I knew cosmopolitan, from several different cultures. But the plane touched down in a rudimentary airport: there was one woman on the side of the runway, cutting the grass with a sickle, her beat-up old bicycle laying on its side in the grass. She was wearing a Mao jacket with Mao pants and little slippers. She hacked away at the grass. Clearly the definition of cosmopolitan required some leeway.

We had the name of the hotel from the guidebook and we got into an extremely nice-looking Mercedes and drove into the center of town until people were so thick on all sides of the car that the driver had to stop and point at our hotel that was three doors down. We paid, clambered out – both of us in black, my hair very short; there was a good chance there were chains and safety pins somewhere in my outfit. We muscled our way through the crowd, taking advantage of the way people stopped to gawk at us. We walked up the grimy stairs and pushed open glass doors: the place seemed more like a warehouse than a hotel. The lobby was filled with wooden crates for tea –cubes four feet high, boxes tied with rope and sealed with wax, covered with labels in Chinese script. Half a dozen men in Mao outfits sat on the crates of tea watching a tiny 8-inch black-and-white TV that sat on another box next to what we would discover was the ubiquitous decanter of hot water for tea. No lounge chairs, no fountain, no bar, no rack of brochures, no attendants or rugs or any of the items that you expect in a hotel lobby, more a scene of the break room in a factory. My traveling companion started to panic, quietly but vehemently insisting to me that we leave immediately. As you can imagine, protesting grime was not a phrase for which I had a flash card. I think the front desk was behind bars and it took several minutes of hand signals and choppy language to explain to the woman that we wanted to get another hotel. Relenting, she called several places using a clunky old phone. She wrote something out in Chinese on a piece of paper that we were to give to the cab driver. Of course we had no way of deciphering what she had written, and though we were depriving her of a booking and I suppose she had no incentive to send us elsewhere, we had to trust her. We stood on the landing of the hotel, watching for the cab through a round portico. When a crowd gathered in front of the hotel to look at us we sensibly ducked out of sight.

The cab drove out into the dark night to the point where it started to feel like the beginning of a horror film. But no, there we were in the West Garden, which the proprietor pronounced as Waste Garden. The tiny room looked out on ceramic tiles with the classic upturn at the corners; the very narrow mattress in its plastic sheet still smelled of mildew; the sheets were thinner than paper; there was the thermos of hot water; doilies, paper pictures hanging on a nail on the wall. Things were definitely not what they seemed.

In the morning, we drove back into the center of the city until we were surrounded by people, all in Mao suits with Mao hats, their black hair cut almost identically, and for the men, a raspberry muscle shirt that must have been the authorized government product of the year because we saw it everywhere thereafter. I was a full head-, if not head-and-shoulders taller than the crowd, my traveling companion was at their height. We needed to change travelers’ checks (we are in the time before ATMs and credit cards that would work internationally, remember). Where to go? We went to the Bund, the main thoroughfare that had been built by Europeans during what felt like the distant past. Gothic columns, the grandeur of flowers and fruits and birds of European architecture, but buildings covered with soot, untended, out of favor, out of place with Chinese architecture and out of place with the tall, cold, unadorned but massively imposing metal boxes that the Russians had built a decade ago and that now sat abandoned or unfinished.

Where was the Central Bank of China where we could cash some travelers checks? My traveling companion and I double checked the address. We were standing in front of it – a large building that was covered with bamboo scaffolding – (another ubiquitous sight, surprising for my traveling companion who was an electrician, and so alas many of our photos of the trip are of odd electrical wiring and dangerous junction boxes.) We were baffled. The building we had been told was the Central Bank of China had a tarp across the entrance and rubble in the hallway. We went back out onto the street. Perhaps it was the building next door, very grand and well-manicured but a machine-gun-toting guard quickly motioned us away. Back to the rubble-strewn building and, since there was no other option, I pushed open the canvas tarp and there it was – what amounted to the most important bank in the country. To the left was a room full of rubble, to the right was the bank. It was a medium-sized room of wood paneling with a long counter between the public and the administrators, a dozen sitting at identical large green desks straight out of the 50s. I presented the travelers’ checks to the woman at the counter. She licked her finger and counted them rapidly, tapped them on the counter, straightened the packet again and hooked a bulldog clip to the middle of the stack. Surprisingly, she it over her shoulder into the air. The string was just long enough for the stack of bills to plop onto the desk of another worker who, in turn, licked her finger and counted the stack. She tapped the stack, adjusted the stack, counted the stack again and, grasping a different bulldog clip, secured the stack and flung it to her far left where it sailed through the air and landed on the desk of another worker who counted them, finally changed them into Chinese currency, counted again, clipped again, another bulldog clip on another piece of string for yet another counting. Six people touched the money, six flights through the air.

As we left the building, we realized that the ornate well cared-for building to the left was a military headquarters of some kind and the site of capitalist money have been relegated to an almost derelict building. It was the first of many times when things seemed backwards – sometimes refreshingly opposite.

Part two/second installment: “Screaming Through a Hole in the Window”


#travelwriting, #JessWells