I now regularly cover the route from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Capital Airport of Beijing in about 9.5 hours. It took me a little longer back in 1975; 38.5 hours more, to be precise.
The route Amsterdam – Hong Kong was serviced by a DC-8, a kind of flying bus, according to our present standards. We had to stop to fuel every few hours, which meant several opportunities to stretch our legs and inspect increasingly exotic airports, but also added many hours to this, already long, flight. We arrived in Hong Kong about ten in the evening.
Chris started with bad luck, as his luggage was still in Amsterdam, when we arrived in Hong Kong. We agreed on the spot that I would move on to Beijing the following day as planned, while Chris preferred to stay and wait for his luggage. We took a taxi straight to our hotel, the Ambassador Hotel on Hong Kong’s famous Nathan Road, also known as the Golden Mile.
However, despite that perfect location for young adventurers like us, we decided to stay in the hotel that night. We were happy to have a real bed to sleep in, after such a long flight in a cramped airplane seat. The unknown darkness of Hong Kong by night probably also frightened us, although neither of us would have been willing to admit it.
Hong Kong was still the city of Suzy Wong, the famous film prostitute. I had hardly entered my room, when I was called by a lady greeting me with the line ‘Hello; I am Jenny’. I replied that my name was Peter and that I was very tired after my long flight. To my surprise, she was not very persistent. Maybe she had high hopes to catch a man in need sooner or later that evening.
However tired I was, I still turned on the TV set to get my first Chinese TV experience, only to find out I had a choice between a traditional Cantonese opera and a western with John Wayne, dubbed in Cantonese. My first encounter with Hong Kong culture was not an overwhelming success, so I turned in and fell asleep instantly.
Rereading this, it strikes me even more as surprising that two young guys in the prime of their lives could resist hitting the streets of Kowloon immediately after throwing down their luggage. We must have been completely focused on our goal: reaching Beijing. We were tired of course, and Chris was in a very bad mood, knowing that he had to spend the following day in the same clothes as when we arrived.
If you have not yet seen The World of Suzie Wong, get a copy. It is worth the effort.
I will skip my description of the taxi ride to the Kowloon Station and the train to the border and directly move on to crossing the border with China, an adventure by itself those days
The border between Hong Kong and China was still a kind of twilight zone in 1975. It was the Crown Colony Hong Kong, a part of the British Empire, but when properly positioned, you could actually look into China and see what happened on the other side. Watch towers had been erected for tourists to catch a glimpse of the rural village at the other side of the border river: Shenzhen.
What currently remains of that village is its name. It is now known as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and is at least as modern as Hong Kong. You can still go there by train, but when your final destination is Guangzhou, your train may rush through, with Guangzhou East as the first stop. It has been set up as a showcase of modernizing China, but although there is still a real border, with guards and passport control, if you want to savour that experience, you need to take a local train, or other type of transportation to go to the border and walk through all those formalities.
Back in 1975, I had to carry my luggage over the bridge. The wooden bridge was really rudimentary. I could see the border river flowing under my feet.
The passport check was a first surprise. After hearing and reading all those stories about the suspicion of the evil empire to foreigners, that formality struck me as ridiculously short and relaxed. No questions, not body check, no request to inspect my suitcase, nothing more than another stamp in my passport. After my first few steps on Chinese soil, I was shown a bench to wait on for another local train that would take me further to Guangzhou.
We Dutch are usually not keen on meeting fellow countrymen abroad. Unfortunately, we are a globetrotting nation and you can find us in all corners of the world.
I had unexpected company during my trip from Hong Kong to Beijing. The visa officer of the Dutch Embassy in Beijing and his wife and son happened to be on the same train. Although we Dutch are not always keen on meeting compatriots abroad, let alone engage in in-depth conversations with them, in those days and that part of the world, we both found it an incredible coincidence.
He had already some experience in Beijing, so I was eager to pick his brain about all aspects of Beijing life, while for him I was another Dutch man, so he was looking forward to several hours of serious discussions . . . about football.
Unfortunately, neither of us lived up to the other’s expectations. He could not inform me about more than the expatriates’ life, and I am not a sporty person, not now and not then either.
Bad luck, but I gave me more time to take up my surroundings. After all, these were my very first moments in China. I was eager to see in what ways it differed from what I was used to at home.
The railroad and the station were elevated above the surrounding fields. I noted a balcony besides my bench and I stepped onto it to look down and see whether I could spot something really new outside. Right under me I saw a young female guard, dressed in a grey uniform with a red button on her cap, holding a rifle.
At least, that was a scene that I recognized from the publications about China. However, despite her uniform and weapon, she did not strike me as frightening. She was just there, doing her job. We actually looked one another in the eyes, and she seemed to gauge me with at least as much curiosity as I inspected her. We were absorbing one another, and the moment she also became aware of that, she smiled at me. The literature had never prepared me for that.
Rethinking that situation now, I realize that, while I was intrigued by the combination of an attractive young woman and her uniform and fire arm, she on her part must have been puzzled by that young Westerner who looked like a man, but wore his hair unto his shoulders. Don’t forget it was 1975, and most young European men had long hair.
Ha, my long hair would trigger more comments and jokes during the year to come. Still, it also shows how tolerant China was for people who looked different from what was regarded as normal. In those days, men with beard or long hair had problems entering some East European countries.
The train for Guangzhou arrived, with the man despatched to accompany me to the Guangzhou Airport. Having long hair was tolerated for a European man, but travelling on his own in China was another thing.
The following train ride and flight were intriguing for me, as everything was a first during that first day in China. However, you are cordially invited to read all about it in the book. I will continue these excerpts with my arrival in Beijing, where I was met by a man who would play a serious role in my life until my departure late August 1976:
Teacher Bi, the person in charge of the foreign students at the Beijing Language Institute. His full name was Bi Jiwan, as Chinese are used to put the family name first. However, I only learned his full name much later, when Google started to be used as a verb and I had googled his surname in connection with the Beijing Language Institute.
That proved to be an interesting search, as Teacher Bi had made an impressive career after the start of the economic reforms in 1980, spending almost two decades at various universities in England and North-America. I now also know that before his assignment to the Institute, he even spent a year in Bagdad in 1962-63, teaching Chinese, and was involved as an interpreter in some reconnaissance work along the Sino-Burmese border in 1960.
This is more than a simple human interest story. It says something about the quality of the staff of the Beijing Language Institute of that time. This was no common man. Our coming to China to learn Chinese and acquire first-hand knowledge of China meant something to the Chinese government. They furnished us with a team of highly qualified teachers and supervisors; a privilege that, in hindsight, has been underappreciated by us.
Teacher Bi was assigned to the Beijing Language Institute and within the school as the supervisor of the foreign students. Knowing what I know now, it might not have been his ideal career, but if that guess is correct, he surely performed that task with grace.
Ronald, whom you met in the previous chapter, during my birthday dinner, was there as well. Dutch students did not arrive in China that often. Actually, so very little happened anyway that was worth reporting about to the motherland, that it was worth the effort to meet me, so he could send a memo about it to the Ambassador the following morning. I will skip my first encounter with him as well as the ride to the Institute. I was getting dark, so I was not able to savour the scenery as I did from the train to Guangzhou. The final excitement of that eventful day was the arrival at the school.
Arriving at the campus, we immediately drove on to the dormitory. It was late, particularly for Chinese standards, so I was recommended to go to my room, unpack and get a good night sleep. That was good advice by any standard.
The building was a block, like all dormitories. The two-person room was small, but well furnished. Actually, it was so well furnished, that it was difficult to move around, even for one person. Per occupant, there was a bed, a wardrobe, a table with a lamp and a chair. The floor was concrete, and the walls made of white plaster. The room had a great view, on the playground in the centre of the campus. It needed to get used to, but it was only slightly smaller than the room I used to rent in Leiden, although I had that room all for myself. The only piece of furniture that was missing in Beijing was a sofa. However, we acquired the habit of using our bed as a sofa, whenever the wooden chair started to feel a little to ‘wooden’ on our behinds.
Teacher Bi was eager to say goodbye after he had showed me to the room. He promised to pick me up the following morning to show me around and to point out the nearest shops to purchase some daily necessities. . .
After that eventful day that started by waking up in a Hong Kong hotel and ended in settling down in the dormitory of the Beijing Language Institute, my mind needed a rest to process all the impressions of the day. I switched off the light and turned in, to spend my very first night in China. No Jenny called me that evening.