Recently the Travel section published a series of articles on China. In this final, two-part report for this year on that fascinating country, we offer a different, more adventurous approach to China travel which, admittedly, is not for everyone.FF or lots of reasons you've been putting off a trip to China. F The social cachet of a People's Republic group tour, let's face it, is not what it once was. Now that the Smiths and the Joneses have all done it, an announcement that you've just come back from a walk on the Great Wall is unlikely to turn aside cocktail-party chitchat for long from more immediate matters like inflation.
And with the land cost alone of a group tour to China now averaging over $100 per person per day -- almost double what it was just after "normalization" of U.S.-China relations in 1979 -- inflation concerns more than just homefolks.
Who wants a group tour anyway? Being adventurous and independent, you've traveled around Europe on your own, Ruskin under one arm, Arthur Frommer under the other, and you know that along with the hard work of finding the train station yourself, trudging up four flights of stairs to the little family-run pension, picking out your supper from the simmering pots in the kitchen of a neighborhood restaurant, and figuring out whether it's bus 7 or bus 18 that goes to the Arc de Triomphe come priceless opportunities for seeing things at your own pace, for meeting people, for observing the everyday events that somehow turn out to be as memorable as the great monuments.
Since the People's Republic first began welcoming large numbers of Western visitors three years ago, group tours have been virtually the only mode of entry. There are several reasons. Even with the tremendous expansion efforts of the past few years, hotel, restaurant and guide facilities in China are still limited. Group tours make the most efficient use of such facilities as there are. Then, too, there's no disguising the financial motive: foreign tourism has become big business in China and a major source of the hard currency the Chinese need for industrial development.
If Americans, Japanese and Europeans are lining up to hand over $100 a day, why should the Chinese government let them in for less? But a more humane consideration is at work, too. The Chinese are genuinely hospitable people, and they know that for a foreigner to travel on his own, especially if he neither speaks nor reads Chinese, is not easy.
Nonetheless, while China has been publicly opening its front door wider and wider every year -- more than a half million Western visitors (about 50,000 Americans) are expected in 1981 -- it has just begun, without fanfare, to open its "back door," too, and let in a small number of individual travelers who want to see the country on their own.
I was lucky enough to find my way to China's back door recently, and was able, all by myself, to make a 21-day, 1,700-mile odyssey from Canton in the far south to Peking in the north, stopping at major places of interest in between, for just $500 -- about $25 a day, less than a quarter the cost of the cheapest group tours.
For several years Hong Kong and Macao "compatriots," as the Chinese like to call them, as well as Chinese-Americans, have been granted individual tourist visas; but unless you're able to convince the Chinese Embassy in Washington that the McGillicuttys in fact go back to the Han Dynasty you're not likely to land such a visa in North America. In Hong Kong, however, there are several travel agents who seem to manage the necessary arrangements without difficulty.
My own Hong Kong connection was Sidney Chee, an affable man who lived in Chicago for five years and now operates the United (Tai Shan) Travel Agency in the Mongkok district of Kowloon. The Chinese adventure begins as soon as you jump aboard a Nathan Road bus, leave behind the harbor-side dullness of the Sheraton, the Hyatt-Regency and the two new McDonalds, and step off amid Mongkok's swirling crowds, yelling street vendors and steaming curb-side cook stalls.
For $50 Chee secured for me a visa good for Canton, Hangchow and Shanghai, as well as overnight passage by steamer up the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Canton. Once you're inside China it's easy to get your visa extended. The Shanghai police added Suchow, Nanking and Peking to my itinerary without question. Indeed, the few other Westerners I encountered traveling independently had all come into China on group tours of one kind or another, had applied to the police for an extension to their visas, and had ended up staying behind after their tour groups had gone back to Japan or Hong Kong.
If you're hesitant to set out for Hong Kong with nothing in hand but a round-trip plane ticket from Dulles, a visa extension is probably the best plan: Join a two- or three-day tour to Canton (they leave from Hong Kong everyday, and you can join them on just a few days' notice), apply to the Canton police for an extension, then jump your tour at the end. That way, too, you're in the best position to appreciate how much more you see and experience when you travel independently.
Setting your own pace, meeting people in their everyday routine, living on a price-scale close to what the Chinese themselves spend -- in all three respects independent travel will show you a China different from what you'll see out the windows of a China Travel Service bus.
Pacing may be the most important difference of all.
Take, for example, Peking. With literally hundreds of buildings ranged over more than 250 acres, the old imperial "Forbidden City" in Peking deserves a far more thoughtful, more ceremonial perambulation than the two- or three-hour rush-through that group tours provide. The centerpiece of Peking as it was laid out by the early Ming emperors, precisely aligned with the directions of the compass, the Imperial City was quite literally the center of the universe in imperial days. Palace after palace and, inside, treasure after treasure brought me back three times during my week in Peking.
With time to take your eyes off the relics of the past, there is a fascinating human scene to sit back and watch in the present: blue-clad workers peering through the windows of the last emperor's private apartments, courting couples sneaking kisses in the emperor's garden, children gobbling down the refreshment stand's fruit-and-nut rice cakes with their tea, six-foot Mongols on a visit to the capital towering over their Peking comrades and striding through the palace chambers in knee-high riding boots and brilliant silk robes.
Only at your own pace can you hope to sense the delicate harmony between natural grandeur and man-made beauty that has made Hangchow a place of pilgrimage since Marco Polo's day. The hills, garden, pavilions, and temples that line the shores of Hangchow's West Lake reveal changing charms in the gray mist of dawn, in the brilliance of the full sun, and in the golden rays of sunset. And to put yourself under the spell of those charms you must walk the hill paths, rest in the Buddhist cave-temples, and row on the lake. An hour's hike from the Qian Tang River bank up the wooded valley known as "Nine Creeks and Eighteen Brooks" leads you past peasants singing while they pick tea leaves, through the squawking geese and white stone cottages of Long Jing village, to the remote Dragon Well tea house up in the hills -- and to a fresh appreciation of Chinese landscape painting.
This fabled oriental balance between art and nature perhaps comes from oriental ways of getting from one place to another. Rushing from one tourist sight to another on a bus simply extends the hectic rhythm of life in America; outside the bus window the Chinese themselves are quietly pedaling along at the more moderate speed of the bicycle. Riding a bike not only helps you see things more closely; it helps you hear them more closely as well. The Chinese student who asked me whether I didn't find it nerve-jangling to hear the jingle of hundreds of bicycle bells in Chinese cities had obviously never walked down the street of a Western city.
The problem for a foreign visitor is how to put himself in the saddle of one of these machines for slowing the pace of moving and heightening the pace of seeing and hearing. It is possible, of course, to go to one of the foreign-exchange Friendship Stores, put down $150, and ride off on a sturdy three-speed Shanghai special. And in Peking you can even rent a bike. Just opposite the Friendship Store on Jianguomenwai Avenue, unmarked by any sign outside, is a tiny bicycle-repair shop where you can enter, make riding gestures in pantomime, surrender your passport (a Virginia driver's license is not accepted), and pedal off to join the cycling throngs outside. A full day's rental comes to about $1.25.
Better still, though, is to make friends with a Chinese and borrow his cycle. In Suchow my street-corner show of puzzlement brought to my assistance one Wu, an office worker in a silk factory, who not only pointed me in the right direction but accompanied me the rest of the day around the city's famous gardens, lent me his brother's bike and cycled along with me to the Tiger Hill pagoda a few miles outside town, and finally invited me home to his parents' 17th-century house for tea.
An isolated stroke of good luck? Quite the contrary. When you are traveling alone in China, meeting Chinese people is as easy as walking out the door of your hotel.
You are as curious to the Chinese as they are to you. Buying yourself a blue Mao suit will hardly help you blend into the Chinese crowd as Levis or some other typically continental garb might in Europe, so there is nothing to do but accept as gracefully as you can the fact that you're going to be the main object of attention wherever you go. Now you'll know how big celebrities feel back home -- especially when you look up in a restaurant and see 50 pairs of Chinese eyes staring at you while you struggle with your chopsticks.
When Wu and his brother, a medical student, took me roller-skating at the Suchow Workers' Cultural Palace, the scene was an oriental version of Laurel and Hardy: the regular patrons would whiz past me on the rink, do a quick double-take, and end up crashing into the person in front of them.
As certain as you are to be stared at, you're just as sure to be talked to. Everywhere there seem to be Chinese people who are studying English and are eager to try it out. In fact, English-language students often lie in wait at tourist haunts like the Temple of Heavenly Peace in Peking, hoping for a stray Westerner to pounce on and befriend.
In refreshing contrast to most parts of the world, where people have learned English the better to relieve you of your dollars, Chinese people are learning English to broaden their world. The Voice of America, Radio Australia, the BBC -- since the fall of the Gang of Four these English-language channels have found an eager nightly audience. Not all of them are students in the daytime. My Suchow cycling companion, Wu, was an office worker; a sidewalk stroller in the same city who offered to help me buy a jacket was a house-painter who had bought English-language textbooks on his own and practiced every night with the radio.
Given the linguistic ocean that separates China and North America, the quality of these people's speaking and comprehension was good -- astonishingly good, when you consider that most of them had been studying English for only the 2 1/2 years since the government began to encourage such study.
To a man they were all surprisingly frank in discussing the virtues and the shortcomings of Mao, as well as their own experiences when Mao sent all of China's intellectuals out into the country for a decade of proletarian consciousness-raising during the "Cultural Revolution." My interlocutors' relations to their season of rustication varied from person to person. "In my peasant days . . .," one of them would wryly begin his stories. Another, who had spent eight full years in the rice fields, could barely mask his bitterness. Most, surprisingly, said the whole affair had been useful, personally and socially, but all of them agreed that it had ultimately been a failure. The farmers, one of them told me, were as glad to see the delicate, hungry city youths leave as they were themselves to go.
Most of the people I talked to were equally eager to talk about world events. Almost everyone had intelligent questions to ask about America. What did I think Reagan's economic policies would do for America? How many black friends did I have at home? What languages did most American students study?
It was best to be prepared for anything, I found -- though perhaps not for such a question as I was once asked by a young man in Burma. After three hours of random chat on the railroad to Mandalay, he began to describe in graphic detail a contraband blue movie he had recently seen. Did Western people really do such things?
More typical were the questions I was asked by two Peking University students who rode up alongside me while I was riding near the Imperial City. It was an extraordinarily beautiful Saturday, and they had decided to skip their afternoon lecture. "Which lecture?" I asked. Grins and feigned embarrassment. "The History of the Communist Party." Another subject interested them more. What did I think about Sigmund Freud? "Freud? But isn't Freud banned from China?" I asked. Oh yes, they answered, but they were reading books of his smuggled in from Hong Kong.