he first time I came to China, I was just nine years old. It was 1991, and my father had decided it would be a good idea for me, my friend Susan, her mother, and him to go on a grand tour of western China together.
Before you get any ideas, Susan’s mother was my mother’s oldest friend – and the only reason my mother wasn’t coming is because she had work to do back in the UK. My father, who loves China, thought it would be a grand opportunity to pass that on to his daughter.
But I have to admit it didn’t take. I came away from China cold, hungry, and with a determination never again to go to any country that didn’t have central heating.
Why? Well, my dad – not the world’s brightest soul when it came to travel planning – had booked us to go in February. In the middle of winter. Below China’s central heating line, which, I later found out, cuts off half the country from heat. And, just to top things off, we were going in the middle of Spring Festival – the Chinese New Year.
That’s not a great time to book a trip, since half the country goes home to see the other half. I remember being terrified of the sheer press of human beings in the train station, worried that I was going to be swept away and lost forever. Thankfully our driver, Mr Wang, a giant of a man – at least as I remember him – swept me and Susan up on his shoulders and bore us both through the crowd, shouting “Foreign little girls! Foreign little girls coming through! Move out of the way!” (At least, that was what our translator told us he said. Mr Wang communicated with us through smiles and games, not English.)
I think we brought joy to a lot of people’s hearts during that trip, though. In 1991, small blonde children were fantastical rarities in China. People treated us like unicorns; every day we were asked for pictures – and this was at a time when cameras were rare, not the ubiquitous cellphones of today. For the first day, I loved it – it was like being the star of our own show. After the second, it started to get irritating, especially when people wanted to touch our hair to see if it was real.
And I remember the cold. Susan and I used to get into bed with one parent or the other just to stay warm, and wearing everything we had, and under as many layers of duvets and blankets as possible. It was like surviving in the Arctic, especially when we went up into the mountains. Nor can I say much for the quality of provincial Chinese hotels in the early 1990s, though it was there that we invented the chandelier rule – the quality of a hotel is inversely proportional to the size of the chandeliers. There was also a stunning variety of internal fauna, from rodents to insects. I’ve never seen so many things that crawled stung, or flew.
Most of all though, I remember being hungry. I’ve been vegetarian since I was five, a practice that the Chinese – apart from a few Buddhist monks – treated with amazement. That left my eating options limited to eggs, rice, and tofu for three weeks – and I’m pretty sure the rice was cooked in mutton fat.
I don’t want to make it sound as though the whole trip was a nightmare. We got to do things most little English girls never do, like stroke panda’s heads while they were eating bamboo. But it didn’t leave me with any great enthusiasm for going back. For months after the trip I had nightmares that I was still in China, and that I’d never again return to the land of warmth and decent vegetarian food.
That’s why I had some trepidation about a recent travel plan my husband formed. Our main destination was Australia – but he left in a fourday stay in Shanghai, a place he’d always wanted to see ever since reading about it as a child.
“Come on!” he said, “Everything is different now. China’s a rich place.”
I looked skeptical. Sure, I’d seen the pictures of fancy hotels and glitzy restaurants, but China in my mind was still basically associated with being cold and hungry. But I let my husband talk me into it. Rationally, I knew my fears were silly. But China had been associated with awful travel for so long in my head that it was hard to think of it as anything else.
Well, I don’t think I have to tell most readers that things worked out a lot better the second time around. Possibly it was because I insisted on going in the summer. But I’m guessing the clean, friendly hotel we stayed in was able to manage heating – they certainly had enough air conditioning to turn somebody into a carbonite copy of Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
I can’t say that I saw much of the real modern China in a brief visit in Shanghai. Most of it felt like being in any other megalopolis, like New York or Toronto, but it at least put some childhood fears to rest.
But I was a little disappointed that nobody wanted to take a photo with me any more.