China: The Image and The Reality
by Charles N. Barnard
"Our drive to the Great Wall will take two hours," my young Chinese girl-guide said, matter-of-factly. "The morning traffic will be heavy, so the bus will leave at 7:30. Don't be late!" I felt a tingle. Tomorrow I would see China's Great Wall at last—perhaps the most famous single tourist sight in the world, the only man-made object on earth that our astronauts were able to distinguish from the moon!
Soberly, I realized that there is nothing extraordinary about visiting the Wall these days. Tens of thousands of international tourists a week clamber over its 2500-year-old building blocks and so many tour busses make the 2-hour, 75-kilometer trip from Beijing each day that the government has had to build a new, modern highway to take care of the business.
All the same, I hadn't seen the Wall. Its ramparts would be as awesome to me, I expected, as they may have been to the first Mongols. What, exactly, would this wonder of the world look like? I had only stereotypical images: presidents and prime ministers standing at pre-determined photo locations, smiling under fur hats,
the snaking, undulating Wall disappearing at infinity on the barren mountains beyond. I could see Nixon
and Kissinger there, but I did not yet visualize myself.
I couldn't wait for the morning.
China does that to people. Partly because of its 30 years of self-imposed isolation after the fall of the
Chiang Kai Shek government, partly because of its vast and varied landscapes and its one-billion population—and, yes, partly because of its not-so-long-ago enemy status and Communist-state mystique, "Red China"
tempts adventurous travelers. This would be my own fifth passage across China's border in recent years,
but my first opportunity to see some of the classic tourist sights. When I left New York on Japan Air Lines'
daily flight to Tokyo, and thence to Beijing (17 airborne hours over two days), I felt I just might be
embarking on the trip of a lifetime. Two weeks later, when I returned, my pre-trip images had been
tempered by reality.
Arriving at Beijing is somewhat like landing in many other Third World cities: a November chill penetrates
the airport buildings, cold fluorescent light washes down from bare tubes in high ceilings, but advertising
signs for American Express, Courvoisier cognac and a branch of the luxury Paris restaurant, Maxim's, lend
a capitalist touch.
Immigration and customs formalities are loose now, compared to the early days of travel to China. Tourism
has become a major industry, crowds of Westerners are commonplace and passports are not always even
inspected—only the all-important group visa. As a result, the usually impassive border guards seem less
threatening these days; some even smile.
"You will stay at the State Guesthouse. . . Nixon and Kissinger stayed there." Representatives of China
International Travel Service (CITS) are ever anxious to please. Their organization is a quasi-governmental,
near-monopoly which controls travel within the People's Republic.
The road from the airport to downtown Beijing is 45 kilometers and straight as a frozen rope. The land here
is flat and the route is lined by forests of young trees standing leafless in regimented rows. Tractors,
bicycles, busses and horsecarts all use the road; old people with twiggy brooms scratch manure from the
pavement to take home for fertilizer. Flocks of goats scurry along the shoulders. The winter sun is low and
without warmth and the air is silvery with dust. At this moment I recall that Peking Man lived around here
about a half a million years ago.
Beijing begins to take form after we traverse many kilometers of construction sites on its outskirts. To a
new arrival, it appears to be a gray, flat, geometric city without much color or joy about it. Main streets are
double-wide; reinforced-concrete apartment buildings stand grim as blockhouses. Now, in November, most
window ledges and balconies are stacked with heads of Chinese cabbage. The harvest of this staple food is
at its end this month; large piles of the white-green vegetable are even dumped on the sidewalks for all to
Our guide says we are in luck. There is just time to visit the famed Temple of Heaven. Only forty minutes,
please, because we must not be late arriving at the Guesthouse!
The temple is calendar-art familiar when I see it (a circular shrine with a three-tiered roof of glazed blue
tiles). We hurry around the stone-paved area, enjoying the people-watching as much as the monuments.
Chinese are out with their families and bundled-up children today. They seem happy and comfortably
dressed. Some have cameras. They buy balloons for the kids.
Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a collection of villas built since 1959, occupies a parkland which was an
imperial playground for 800 years. It is surrounded by a wall and guarded by police at its main gate. "You
can walk out the gate," our guide says, "but if you do, you will not be allowed to return. Better to stay
The villas remind me of small fraternity houses on a college campus; those which have been occupied by
various heads of state, including President Reagan, are pointed out. The one where I will stay seems to have
no historic distinction. It is a western-style (i.e., 1935) brick building with a large, dimly lighted entry hall
and a gift shop where souvenirs and Scotch whisky are sold from old-fashioned glass showcases. There is
no reception staff. The postal desk is closed; a crusted pot of amber glue for sealing envelopes sits alone on
A sign in the lobby touts massage services: "Head only, 8 Yuan (about $2.75); Upper Part, 15; Lower Part,
10; Whole Body, 25." I settle for a bottle of Dewars for only a few more yuan than a Whole Body.
The next morning, our route to the Wall takes us through the outskirts of Beijing. Yellow, gray and black
smokes spout and drift from the chimneys of small houses and factories. The hoods and radiators of trucks
on the road are bundled in thick, quilted covers. Some bicycles have enclosed sidecars where children ride,
doll-like faces under knitted caps peering from small, square windows. There is an impression of total civil
obedience; no one seems to be trying to get anywhere in a hurry.
As we ride, we are treated to a captive-audience recitation of socialist statistics and social-studies facts: all
you never needed to know about education, birth control, apartment rents, food production, average monthly
income of workers vs. physicians, cultural development, medical care, world peace and the cost of ballet
tickets under Communism.
We cross the Trans-Siberian railway tracks; it takes six days to reach Moscow from here on the train, we
Soon, mountains, sere and winter-brown, rise like a barrier in front of us. Our bus starts to climb; other
busses are in sight on the road ahead now, a whole caravan of them, in fact.
Most tourists are taken to the so-called Badaling section of the Wall. Here, about 70 kilometers (out of a
total of 6000) were restored in 1957. There is a small village where busses park; it is a ten minute walk
along a gamut of souvenir stalls (ear-flap hats, tablecloths, Chairman Mao pins, embroidered vests,
postcards, fake antiques, sweatshirts, old coins) to reach a crowded square which is the access point to the
There it is at last, I say to myself—trying not to be distracted by a Chinese woman who is pulling a fur hat
down over my ears and jabbering her sales pitch. The Wall looks like a piece of stagecraft left over from an
It is a public-holiday scene: thousands of tourists speaking all languages, wearing all costumes: Chinese
military uniforms, fur hats, jogging suits, Mao jackets, leg warmers, Pittsburgh Steelers sweaters. They
carry video cameras, binoculars, blaring cassette players, tour-group flags and piggy-back children. They
pose for Polaroid pictures; they are photographed on the backs of shaggy, two-hump camels. They climb,
out of breath, along the steep stone roadway (built wide enough for five horses abreast) which is between
We are allowed 90 minutes at the Wall—hardly enough after waiting a lifetime, I think. I start to climb as
rapidly as I can, aiming for the better views higher up. A sightseeing helicopter flies overhead, following the
length of the Wall and then returning. A steam locomotive pulling a line of freight cars wails its whistle in
the valley far below.
From the topmost guard tower which I reach, the Wall seems a living thing, a long, flexible dragon's body
crawling over a mountain range. A million Chinese labored two hundred years to build it, they say. I look
north in the direction whence the "enemy" would come. Whoever he was, he must have been greatly feared.
Was he the "Red threat" of his time, I wondered—and was the Wall a Maginot Line? A Star Wars? Or
perhaps a great government make-work project? An early Chinese WPA?
An hour and a half at the Wall is barely time to grasp its scale, certainly not enough to think much about it.
I buy a fur hat for $3, have a $2 Polaroid photo made (by a woman with black fingernails and gold teeth)
and return to the bus.
The strange limestone mountains of Guilin and the beautiful River Li that winds among them are other popular tourist destinations in China these days. The area has been the inspiration for classical scroll
painters for centuries.
Our flight from Shanghai to Guilin is overbooked; we are reassured that we will get there on time
nevertheless—via a military flight. We are bussed to a remote, weedy airport where some old biplanes and
several dozen MIG fighters are lined up, some under khaki canvas covers, some seemingly ready to
scramble. The small military terminal has a branch of the local Friendship Store which, among other things,
sells brass turtles, desk sets (two panda bears holding pens), packages of Jubao cigarettes, scroll paintings,
half pints of a distilled spirit made from sorghum.
Our plane is an elderly British Trident jet with Chinese Air Force markings. Its military pilots get us to
Guilin in two silent hours (no this-is-your-captain announcements; no goodbyes), circling finally over a
strange world of knobby mountains that extends to the horizon in all directions. From the air, the Guilin
landscape looks like an electron-microscope photograph of bread mold.
Our hotel is the Ronghu, parts of it old and worn, some of it new and worn. Two tailor's mannequins
standing arm in arm in the lobby resemble Mr. Nixon and his wife, Pat. Like many tourist hotels in China,
guest rooms at the Ronghu provide two single beds, a small, black & white television (one
Chinese-language channel), stained carpets, one fluorescent light over a wall mirror, a loose-leaf desk
calendar (which will be faithfully turned every day), a telephone which connects erratically with the hotel
desk, a Thermos of boiled water for tea making. Our four-hour excursion on the Lijiang begins with a bus
trip from Guilin to a point on the river where the water is deep enough for navigation. The road follows a
flat, fertile valley between the towering limestone mountains. Rice and other crops are grown in orderly,
geometric plots. The strange terrain causes a sense of displacement. One expects to see elves.
At the river landing, there is the inevitable array of vendors and souvenir stalls. The smell of roasting
chestnuts and smoked fish drifts. In November (a low-water season), there are about 20 shallow-draft river
boats waiting; more than 200 such craft are available at peak periods. On any given day, there may be as
many as 3000 tourists sailing along the 40 kilometers of river between Guilin and Yang Shuo. Tourism is a
major industry for the people of the area.
My boat is #21 of the Guilin Tourism Motor & Boat Company. This monopoly operation controls cruising
on the Li. The 40-foot riverboat has an enclosed dining room (where lunch will be served) and an open
sundeck on top. Between 50 and 70 passengers are accommodated on each boat.
The crew shoves us off with long bamboo poles. The wide, gentle Li appears to be about one foot deep at
this point and flows, gin-clear, over a bottom of smooth, round stones.
Progress is slow; the boats line up to form a sort of convoy. The aromas of cooking drift back to us from
the boat ahead; lunch is being prepared in a huge, gas-fired wok on its after deck. We have a fine day for
the trip and most passengers find a place on the top deck. Each turn of the river reveals a new arrangement
of the curious, conical hills and brings a fresh volley of camera shutters. As the barren mushroom-tops
recede in the distance, each seems painted with a different value of silver-blue mist.
When tour boats pass each other, they exchange horn blasts which echo between the banks. Occasionally
our boat scrapes the stony bed of the shallow river; a noisy, rattling shiver passes through the steel hull.
Yang Shuo, a river port, is the terminus of the cruise. It is a tourist emporium with stalls and vendors
everywhere. Costumed Chinese pose for photos, cormorant fishermen display their trained birds, ponies are
available for rides. Tour leaders usually allow an hour here for shopping. Some of the most interesting
possibilities are genuine antiques which are openly and illegally sold at bargain prices. (Ten dollars will buy
a 400-year-old temple carving, but it is a gamble; antiques may well be confiscated by customs inspectors
when the tourist leaves China.)
Like all travelers, I brought images of China's tourist attractions with me—but I came home with some
Where else, on a summer night, by the brown-gold light of kerosene lanterns, under the branches of
flowering acacia trees, would I have seen dozens of well-behaved youngsters playing outdoor pool on
Where else, by a dawn's cold, silver-satin light, can one watch old women with witches' brooms sweeping
the windborne dust of the Gobi desert from a small town's streets?
Where else, on a rice field the size of Kansas, would I have spotted the black silhouette of a smoke-belching
freight train as it crawled on a distant horizon—like the slow, steady stroke of a calligrapher's brush being
drawn along the rim of earth?
HOME LIBRARY WRITERS CONFERENCES ABOUT TRAVEL CLASSICS
©2000-2017 TravelClassics.com; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca