Meet the Team – Dr Perse reflects on China

Many years ago, I went travelling with my wife Sally. We spent nearly a year backpacking through Asia, and towards the end of our trip spent a month travelling independently through China.

Our trip started with a flight from Hanoi to Hong Kong. The old Hong Kong airport wasn’t far from the CBD, which meant skimming across the rooftops of the city skyscrapers on the way in to landing – quite an exciting arrival in a very exciting city. We’d arranged our arrival to coincide with the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. This also meant that the accommodation reservation we had made disappeared, presumably as the room could be let for more than we’d booked it for. A stressful several hours of searching ended up with us finding a room in a very dodgy part of town, ChungKing Mansions – but we were grateful to have somewhere to sleep for a few nights no matter how basic.

The next few days were preoccupied with the handover, the British putting on an extravagant ceremony. Not to be outdone,the day after possession the Chinese put on an even better one. It rained a lot. We took a fast ferry across to Macau not far away, and spent a few days there. At the time a Portuguese colony, Macau has also since been handed back to China. Lots of casinos, very popular with the Chinese, and paving very reminiscent of Lisbon!

We left Hong Kong by ferry, heading north up the Pearl River, past Guangzhou (colonial Canton in British days) on our way to Guilin. With all the rain and the swollen flow of the river downstream, our boat broke down and we were offloaded in a town on the bank of the river that seemed as though it had never seen a Westerner before. Certainly there was nothing written in English, and no one spoke it either. Fortunately for us there was an American anthropologist on the ferry who was fluent in Chinese and who, together with his Chinese wife, took us under his wing and helped us find a room for the night and a ‘sleeper bus’ to Guilin the next day. I somehow remember very clearly a sachet of soap like liquid left in the bathroom that night, labelled in English ‘Shower Poo’.

After our horizontal bus journey, we spent a few days in a small town, Yangshuo, near Guilin in Guangxi province, and marvelled at the stunning scenery, with vertical limestone cliffs arising out of verdant rice fields. We spent a pleasant few days riding bikes around.

We next travelled to Szechuan province, and the City of Chengdu. Our main memories are of fabulous food (notwithstanding the amazing heat of Szechuan peppercorns), a beautiful teahouse on the edge of a lake, entertaining baby panda twins, an enormous Buddha carved from a cliff face on the banks of a swift river, and a serene Buddhist monastery.

Travelling independently was a challenge. Every train station had a foreigner’s ticket counter, at which no foreigner could purchase a ticket. Tickets were solely reserved for native Chinese, to buy at something above the standard ticket price. In every destination our first job was to find a local to buy us train tickets to our next destination, on the black market. This usually took two to three days, which fortunately was about how long we wanted to stay anyway before moving on. It didn’t always go well. On one occasion we found ourselves on the way to Xian, with a couple of Chinese locals demanding we give up our seats. We stuck to our guns, saying we had purchased our seats to Xian, only to discover our black market tickets only got us a bit more than half way. We couldn’t read Chinese! We were threatened with being thrown off only part way to our destination (again!) but managed to stay on the train- standing til we reached Xian.

Xian was amazing. It is now famous for the discovery of the terracotta warriors. This is an army of life-sized terracotta figures, buried with China’s first emperor around 200 BC. They were only discovered in 1974 when farmers were making excavations for a well. At last count, there were over 8000 soldiers, 500 horses and 130 chariots. The adult figures vary in height, the generals being tallest, as well as in uniform and hairstyle, according to rank. All have a unique face. It was a sight worth travelling to see.

Beijing was our last destination in China, and 20 years ago it was an enormous, bustling city. The palaces, gardens and temples oozed with history. The Great Wall of China was only a day trip away, and a bottle of Tsing Tao beer was cheaper than a bottle of water!

We left China on the trans-Mongolian train, to join the trans-Siberian railway in Irkutsk. China had been the most challenging country in which to communicate in all of our Asian travels – we got by using a phrase book, finding the question we wanted to ask in English, and pointing to the relevant Mandarin translation. Locals would then take our phrase book, point to the answer in Mandarin, and we would trace across the page to the English translation. We tried to speak some Chinese, but with the variations in meaning according to inflection and tone, we usually got nowhere. We did manage to order 2 beers in Mandarin eventually though, and recognize the difference in Chinese characters between man and woman – essential for deciding which toilet to enter.

Over 20 years later, our month in China remains a very fond and vivid memory. We’d love to go back again, see more, and how much its changed.

Dr Aidan Perse