Travel Classics home Travel Stories Library Travel Classics Writers Conferences Travel Classics Media Newsletter Contact Travel Classics

Modern Marco Polos
Travel trailer adventure in the People's Republic of China
by Charles N. Barnard

The eleven shining aluminum travel trailers, each hitched to a big diesel station wagon, looked like grounded blimps. They were parked in two rows in the forecourt of an austere old public building capped with a pagoda roof.

The identical trailer-and-tow-vehicle rigs were all decked out with red-white-and-blue insignia and many flags. Some had found shade under a grove of lichee trees. A few local police in old-fashioned notch-collar tunics patrolled the parking area. Beyond an encircling wall and iron gate, a sea of inquisitive faces peered in.

The heat of day had passed; the caravan was preparing for evening. With long practice, the veteran trailer-travelers — old-timers from Florida, Wyoming, Ohio and Michigan — set up folding tables and chairs between their homes-on-wheels. Inside, in compact kitchens, the womenfolk [don't dare change that word, Mr. Editor, it's what these ladies call themselves!] were preparing a community potluck supper. The aroma of baked beans and spaghetti sauces drifted from the trailers as darkness gathered.

Soon enough, the headlights of some of the big American automobiles were switched on to illuminate long tables where fruit salad and Jell-O and mounds of chocolate chip cookies waited. The shafts of light stabbed onward into the background of trees, revealing small groups of spectators, children and adults standing in awed silence. The diesel engines of the station wagons rumbled at idle; the hiss of quart-size beer bottles being opened (yes, by the "menfolk") announced the beginning of the Happy Hour.

There would be nothing very unusual about this picture of American travel-trailer folk getting together in their typically sociable way at the end of a day on the road — except they were not parked in just another RV campground or national park. This pioneering group of overland adventurers was assembled in the heart of an old Asian port city named Xiamen (used to be called Amoy) and in the coming 18 days, they would be the first-ever Americans to travel caravan-style on the roads of the People's Republic of China.

For the 20 retired Marco Polos (nine couples and two widows traveling as a team), the 400-mile trip within remote Fujian Province would be the fulfillment of a dream. For those of us who traveled with them, it was an opportunity to witness East meeting (or at least gawking at) West, to see a fraction of China's billion-plus people taking their first wide-eyed look at the people — and the wondrous toys — of another world.

Our route would be from Xiamen to Zhangzhou to Quanzhou to Putian to Fuzhou in the first nine days. The place names are not familiar, of course; they are not Shanghai or Beijing. Fujian Province, although opened to tourism a few years ago, is not yet heavily traveled. It is the coastal district of China which is closest to the breakaway island of Taiwan in the South China Sea. In late summer, it can be a hot, humid, gritty place. It is not the China of the travel brochures. There is no Great Wall here, nor any standing army of terra cotta soldiers guarding an emperor's tomb. But Fujian is indisputably China, perhaps more authentic than some of the better known tourist areas.

I reached Xiamen in early September; the trailer people and their equipment had arrived by ship from Hong Kong a day or two ahead of us. A photographer and I had flown in from New York and eventually into China on a chartered Boeing of the national airline, CAAC. It was a journey from luxury to austerity, but the coming days would be as much an adventure for us as for the hardy travelers we had come to be with. From my scrawled, dust-of-the-road diary, this is how things went:

Raining when we leave Hong Kong; it is typhoon season. CAAC gives each passenger a plastic raincoat. On the one-class plane there is warm Coke for all and bags of mysterious treats: "Double Lantern" nougat candies and "Geshi Liangguo," which may be a dried fruit, who knows? I take a malaria pill with the Coke; Fujian Province is a confirmed malarial area.

The brown coastline of China is below, mysterious and with few signs of life; muddy, serpentine rivers flow to meet the blue sea. There are some fishing boats and a few villages, but nothing moving on the roads. When we land at Xiamen, there is but one other plane at the terminal. Broiling heat on the concrete apron. Some local Chinese women wear white fabric sun hats with broad, flat brims. Arriving Americans attract curious but courteous attention. Countless customs and immigration officials in green border-guard uniforms with red patches on their collars. Many smiles for foreign guests — and questions. "How many cameras do you have? Watches? Calculators? Gold jewels? Dollars?" We count. More smiles. Our passports are thump-thumped with red stars.

A green Toyota van is waiting for us; it takes us through an old dusty city with suburbs still in the process of being built. Unfinished "factories" are everywhere. "Electronics," we are told, cryptically. Joint ventures: TVs, copiers, stereos. The Xiamen Mandarin Hotel is a surprise, new and clean. The staff is young, eager and inexperienced. It is a big day for them. We are served steak, French fries and green beans for lunch. (The waiters watch how we eat.) Then we go downtown to meet the members of the caravan under the shade of the lichee trees.

The Americans are dealing with various problems. Chinese hose couplings don't fit American hose couplings, it seems. Some of the CB radio antennas are broken. And the police are late in bringing the driving licenses. These have been a bureaucratic snag from the beginning. China does not issue licenses to anyone over 60. The average age of the Americans is more than 70; one driver is 91 and all are over 65. All must take a test; all pass easily. When the police finally arrive, there are many handshakes and more smiles. ("Old Americans better drivers than we thought.") A Chinese television crew has now joined the caravan. The searing glare of the lights makes the license-presentation ceremonies seem important.

After that, we have our potluck supper and get acquainted. A doctor in the group gives counsel on heat exhaustion, malaria and diarrhea. There is talk about how hot the trailers had been for sleeping the night before. There are questions about where to buy supplies: diesel fuel, canned butter, 12-volt fuses, more beer. Everyone is also anxious to get on the road and get moving. These are old pros, some with as many as 30 years' experience in travel trailers in all parts of the world. All are members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club, an organization with a history of sponsoring many international caravans for its members. The particular idea to travel by trailer within "Red China" has spawned an additional organization called Caravan America-China. This received support from the Airstream company (which supplied custom-built 20-foot trailers) and several divisions of General Motors (which supplied the GMC Suburbans). Albeit, the participants in this first expedition have invested about $12,000 per couple in personal costs.

After another day of preparations, sightseeing and banquet toasts under TV lights, we finally move out of Xiamen. The eleven gleaming rigs, American and Chinese flags flying, form a precise military-style column and pass through the labyrinth of the old Chinese city. From the lead car, an announcement on the CB radio: "We're rolling. Come in, Caboose!" Then, from the end car, "Move on out! Caboose in place!" (The radios had been another problem in a communist country; for security reasons, citizens of the PRC are forbidden such a means of communication. An exception was finally made for the caravan — but talk between the cars was monitored.)

Now, for the first time, we see a sight that will be endlessly repeated in the coming week: the wide-eyed wonder of Chinese people watching a group of Americans traveling in a long line of strange armored capsules. In the eyes of some, I am sure, the caravan might have descended from space.

It will be a short shake-down drive to Zhangzhou, not more than 50 miles, but this takes all morning because of traffic and the impossibility of making a good average speed. The highway is paved and tree-lined all the way, but rules-of-the-road are either nonexistent or chaotic. There are no route signs, no center stripe, no police. Trucks, tractors and busses moving in both directions drive down the middle of the street; bicycles swarming like wiry, black insects take both sides. When a motor vehicle is encountered coming in the opposite direction, a swerving maneuver by both drivers avoids a collision. Sometimes an impasse results.

Then bicyclists and animals scatter and the two drivers stop, radiator to radiator, until space is somehow made for passing. Sometimes our small Toyota van follows the caravan's caboose, sometimes it leads. When we are behind, we see the reaction of the people in small villages as the "army" passes. It is a myth that Orientals are all inscrutable; many of these rural Chinese smile and wave. Some stumble off their bicycles and stand in surprised wonder; workers in the fields drop their tools to watch us pass; mothers grasp the hands of small children to hold them safe from this strange invasion.

We ask our driver to move from the rear of the column to the head. He tries, passing one trailer rig at a time, fighting the hazards of oncoming traffic. Suddenly, he gives up, we don't know why. Later, when we speak with an interpreter, it is explained: the horn on the van has failed and in China it is illegal to overtake any other vehicle, even a bike, without issuing a continuous series of horn blasts. As a consequence, the roads are a cacophony of honks, beeps, wails and moans, a mad, meaningless symphony. In our case, no more horn meant no more passing.

At the Overseas Chinese Hotel in Zhangzhou, the local police volunteer to direct the parking of the trailer rigs in a lot. It is soon apparent that the caravan's own "parking committee" has superior skills. Two men direct the backing maneuvers with all the arm-waving, wrist-swiveling virtuosity of Navy beachmasters at an invasion exercise. The police look on in admiration.

There is a reception: 40 of us are seated around four sides of a room with a tile floor. We hear speeches of welcome from officials, the hotel manager, the local travel service. Glasses of water, small wet towels, tea in stained cups, and plates piled with sliced pineapple are passed. Dragon's Eye fruit (longen) is offered. "Looks just like the berries on a buckeye tree in Ohio," one of the Americans declares.

It is a happy, gabby reunion after a morning on the road. Impressions are compared. "Did you see them mountains in the distance? Reminded me of coming into Katmandu!" The menfolk discuss mechanical troubles — a few blown fuses, a couple of dead CB radios, some air-conditioning problems. "Need some freon, is all. Wonder if we can get any?"

Lunch in the hotel dining room; hot towels smell of chlorine. Plastic grape vines overhead sparkle with Christmas tree lights. A color photograph of lower Manhattan decorates one wall. The food causes good-humored comments. "What's this? Gluey brown rice wrapped in a leaf!" (There are also tasty shrimps with spring onion, fresh green kale, sweet and sour fish.) "I'm having some fish with my bones!" Laughter. Then, "This is Campbell's chicken noodle soup, right?" One woman tries to eat with three chopsticks.

In the afternoon there is a sightseeing trip to a temple and a tour of a flower garden and nursery where local species were inevitably compared with familiar plants and flowers at home. Good old American candor: "They can call that one what they like, it looks a regular old peony to me."

After dinner, some of us walk in this town that seldom sees a tourist. Street lights cast a weak, pink light on two flowing rivers of people, some walking, some wheeling slowly by on bikes. There seems a consensus pace for these thousands and few vary from it; thus, the two rivers flow easily. It is the equivalent of the Spanish rambla — a paso doble — the slow evening stroll around the town square, boys boldly eyeing girls, girls peeking back. It is a young, well-mannered crowd, neatly dressed, the men in clean white shirts and dark pants, girls in cool transparent dresses which reveal short slips and unneeded bras beneath.

We name the main street Broadway and let ourselves be carried along between the human tides; we attract polite, shy curiosity.

Beyond the pale of pink glow, there are other gleams of light in the darkness, as if this scene extended to infinity across all of China. The voices of the population combine in a mass murmur, no laughter, no shouts, just one great, overheard conversation.

There are other sounds in the night: the chorus of bicycle bells, an ethereal tinkling like a forest of wind chimes stirred by an evening breeze — a music entirely unlike the strident, familiar two-stroke a-r-r-r-i-n-g-g-g of American bicycle bells. From the curbs come the clang of other bells with a different, more insistent tone. The old women who ring them squat among big, battered Thermos bottles, offering to sell water to passersby. They repeat one word in cadence with the bells. It may be an assurance that the water is boiled; I don't know and there is no one to ask. We are far beyond English language here.

Two policemen in green uniforms maneuver slowly up the middle of our Broadway with a motorcycle and sidecar. After they pass, they turn to wave at us. They know who we are. News of the trailers coming to town has been in the People's Daily. We are celebrity guests in Zhangzhou tonight.

The trailer people retire finally to their Airstreams and we return to our hotel. Room keys, clustered by the dozen on heavy iron rings, are kept by a jailer-like attendant at the end of each hall; only she can unlock a guestroom door. Mosquito nets hang from high ceilings over the beds. There is a carafe of boiled water, a Thermos of hot water, a can of Fujian tea, a nest of chipped cups. The TV is dead; a glass-front bookcase is empty.

An English-language pamphlet has been placed on my pillow: "Small Towns in a Changing Countryside," by Professor Fei Xiaotong. The American couples sleep each night in their trailers and fix their own breakfasts. Fellow travelers like me stay in whatever hotels are available. We pay a flat, government-prescribed fee of $95 per day, including meals. No choice of rooms or menu is offered; we are simply promised the "best available." The Chinese are anxious to be what they call "a best host" to all foreign visitors, but in some smaller cities accommodations are plain and service sometimes wanting. If, for example, the cook who prepares "western breakfast" doesn't show up one morning, lard-rich cookies and orange soda pop are provided. When the man does come to work, we have coffee and fried eggs with the cookies.

Zhangshou is a one-night stopover. The next day, the caravan rolls again, headed for Quanzhou, another coastal city. The scenes on the road are a replay of yesterday: farms, villages, brick factories, water buffalo, fish ponds, ducks, people in conical "coolie" hats, the never-ending parade of bicycles carrying every conceivable load: automobile tires, furniture, sacks of grain, machinery, clay pots, live chickens, firewood. A huge political billboard outside of town proclaims in English, "All the generations of the Yellow Emperor look forward to reunification." A message to whom? Taiwan across the straits, no doubt.

In Quanzhou, another hotel, another reception, another lunch. Meals are a time for everyone to catch up on the news, just like at home. Some of the drivers "gassed up" last night, a process that took hours, they report. The diesel fuel had to gurgle down through a garden hose from an overhead tank. "Expensive, too!" is the verdict. "Five bucks a gallon is quite a price in a country that produces its own oil!" There was also a problem with motor oil. "Don't know what kind they sold us; it came in Coke bottles."

Chinese cuisine continues to be full of surprises. The doctor extracts several small, meaty balls from a tureen of soup and declares them to be some sort of testicle. A new type of greens is analyzed as Swiss chard. The yeasty Tsingtao beer is warm, but good. A cracked crab dish which yields little more than cut fingers is renamed Smashed Crab. "All this sitting around the table is slowing us down," one of the group complains. "I'd rather be having a peanut butter sandwich in the trailer."

The first really close body-contact with China comes this afternoon. We go shopping in downtown Quangzhou and it becomes bedlam and gridlock. Several of the GMC Suburbans unhitch and drive to a main square. There they are immediately surrounded by a curious, silent, friendly mass of humanity, all ages, all sizes, arranging themselves in circles around each American couple.


copyright 2000-2017; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca