Traveling in China

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
The Great Wall is a top tourist attraction when traveling in China.

There’s no question that fortune smiled when MOTHER EARTH NEWS was traveling in China last year. We were able to
visit such locations as Kunming, Chengdu, and Nanning, as
yet “unwesternized” by the influences of tourism and only
recently opened to visitors, and that made us feel
especially privileged when we talked, later, to
other travelers stuck in such already beaten paths as the
Beijing/Guilin/Shanghai/Guangzhou route.

Tourist “Musts”

Of course, we did make certain–during our
short stay in Beijing–that we climbed the Great Wall
(it’s steep!), explored the gorgeous symmetry of the
Forbidden City, visited the Ming Tombs, and took a
leisurely tour of the stunningly beautiful Summer Palace.

We even had opportunities to join the capital city’s
citizens (at least those of us who got up early enough
did!) in their morning exercises; to observe with awe
the thousands of rush hour bicyclists pedaling safely in
wide, clearly marked lanes; and to visit the famous
Red Star Commune, where (among other things) we cheered a
cow on as she gave birth to a healthy calf, and looked on
unhappily while Peking ducks were force fed to make fat
future dinners.

The “Real” China

But when we headed for more distant provinces, we came face
to face with an even more interesting China. The experience
began on the evening that we walked out of our Chengdu
hotel and found a number of people waiting for us to
“practice their English.”

It’s remarkable how fluently such men and women can
converse after only two or three years of lessons. That
first night, for example, we were accosted by two
attractive high school girls who were extraordinarily
concerned about the outcome of the American presidential
election, and disappointed that we couldn’t predict the
outcome.

Surprisingly, we found that no subjects–even
military matters–were taboo to the often
well-informed people we encountered, and answers to
our questions were obviously candid. At first,
when they said, “Let’s walk while we talk,” we thought we
were encountering signs of some form of national paranoia,
but it soon became evident that stopping on the streets (or
anywhere else) would immediately attract scores of
unabashedly curious onlookers.

Another Kind of Communism

In great contrast to the citizens of the U.S.S.R.–who
always seem to feel the power of some sort of intangible
authoritarian “vibes”–the Chinese don’t appear to
weigh their words or feel the slightest
nervousness when dealing with Westerners. This, of course,
was not true a few years ago. We heard unpleasant accounts
of the days of the Cultural Revolution, though some of the
people we met felt that their time served on communes (it’s
no longer mandatory, but was required not long ago) had
been a good thing.

On the whole, however, the people claimed to be immensely
happy with the country’s new regime … which is,
seemingly, decentralizing power and making knowledge and
efficiency–rather than merely “good
Communism”–prerequisites for high positions in a land
eager to upgrade the standard of living of its populace.

There were still complaints, though … most of
them from young people, who have a strong desire for more
“personal freedom.” At present, youths must work where
they’re told, and have a great deal of trouble
ever changing their professions. (In order to keep
the nation’s cities from becoming more crowded, the
government often forces people to take jobs in the areas
where their parents were born.)

Many of the Chinese, however, seem quite resigned to
fulfilling their slots in life in such a way. One
university student did complain that the teaching
job she would be assigned to would be “boring” … but
when we asked whether that fact made her angry, she only
smiled and said, “No, not really.”

Others were more discontented. Our young high school
acquaintances, for instance, were furious because
“international dancing” (as they call disco/rock) had been
banned everywhere except in the schools. They also
commented, with some disgust, “The high officials have big
houses but the people have little ones.”

The Basics

Chinese housing, in fact, often leaves much to be
desired. Yet rents average only 70¢ a month out
of an almost universal salary of $48 a month, and some of
the innovations in the small homes (such as carefully
designed one-family methane plants that provide free
lighting and fuel) are little short of amazing.

The average citizen’s clothing, on the other hand, seems to
be perfectly adequate, and the nation’s stores (again, in
comparison with those in the U.S.S.R.) are filled with
goods at reasonable prices. There’s even a choice of
brands! Furthermore, health care is free, and people can
choose either traditional or Western medicine …
or a combination of both.

Food, as we had heard prior to our trip, is abundant.
Intensive, raised-bed gardening is evident everywhere
(this, too, will be described in detail in a future issue), and each spare inch of topsoil is put to agricultural
use … from highway right-of-ways to meter-wide ledges
dug out of steep mountainsides. The results were reflected
in well-fed, healthy-looking people; in booming “free
markets,” where growers could sell their surplus produce; in crowded restaurants; and in our own meals,
which usually ranged from 10 to 20 delicious courses. (We
did occasionally have to deal with such “delicacies” as
roasted sparrows with their heads still intact and fried
baby bees. However, the latter turned out to be
quite tasty. In fact, most of us couldn’t
“eat just one”!)

Post-Journey Thoughts

But the best thing about our trip to
China–in addition to the excellent food, the
efficient service, the ancient temples, the picture-book
parks, and all the other enchanting historical landmarks
that made this country so wonderful to visit–was the
opportunity to interact with its gentle, cheerful, caring
people and their well-loved, fearless children. Many of our
travelers remarked that despite–or maybe because
of–the lack of police or guards, they had never felt
safer or more comfortable anywhere. And several are
already planning to return the next time
MOTHER EARTH NEWS sponsors a China trip.

That “next time” may be next summer, but
perhaps won’t take place until 1982. We’re spoiled now, you
see, by the knowledge of a China that exists far away from
the “tourist track,” so we’re still holding out for
permission to visit more distant places (maybe
even Tibet!). If you’d like to make such a journey, let us
know and we’ll
contact you as soon as we’re granted visas.

In the Meantime

Until then, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has some other incredibly fine tours to
satisfy your wanderlust and your desire for practical
knowledge of the world: a Solar Tour of Israel (February 19
to March 3, 1981) … a Scandinavian Crafts Tour (May 5
to May 22, 1981) … a previously unannounced Sanctuaries
of Sri Lanka Tour (July 4 to 24, 1981) to study exotic
animals and birds under the guidance of that country’s
Wildlife and Nature Protection Society … a Solar Tour
to England and France (August 23 to September 6, 1981) … and a South Seas Seminar–with Paul and Anne
Ehrlich, and John and Cheri Holdren–that will take us
to Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Raiatea (November 27 to December
11, 1981).

And we’re already lining up other exotic learning
experiences for 1982.