As a child, I imagined that if I dug all through the Earth, I’d find China. I got that idea from the globe in the first-grade room at Lab School. At age 67, I was one of the first to tour there by bicycle; we were 11 days behind China’s "iron curtain." I was the oldest woman and the only Missourian to make the trip.
It required two years for the American Youth Hostels and All China Youth Federation to work out the details of the tour. They planned the itinerary, food, lodging, health care and insurance and told us places we could and could not tour. We could wear shorts and blouses but no halter tops. We were not to take expensive gifts; items were to be valued at less than a dollar. I took a dozen dry kitchen sponges that miraculously expand in water, about 15 walnut-size chunks of moist Boone County white clay and several $1.50 Missouri corncob pipes.
We were to drink only boiled water from the hotel. Having food in our rooms could attract rats. My roommates and I forgot; one hot night we left the patio door open!
Although May 1981 seems only a few years ago, I hope that much of what I saw has changed. Regular tourists were shuttled from one point of interest to another, whereas we bicyclists saw behind the artificial fronts, the billboards, the facades. Tour buses carrying the elite, professionals and buyers seeking profitable deals hurried past chickens and hogs in the streets, homes without water faucets and people doing laundry in alleys with public tap water and plastic pans.
Olympic guests won’t meet Tum, a young woman carrying 129 pounds of sand with a pole across her shoulders to the fifth-floor level of a mountainside for $55 a week - to enlarge a hotel! She took tourists’ laundry home at night to make extra pennies to "buy something nice for mother."
It’s August 2001. Here are notes about the China I saw in l981:
● "People with withered gray skin on feet in open sandals gathered around my bike and me. They stared, laughed when I rang the bell. Pointed at water bottle, pump mounted on bike frame, quick release hub, high pressure tires. I showed them. Their bikes are generations-old; black, men’s, single speeds. Many have large baskets, one on each side of the rear wheel; they transport sand, vegetables, fire wood, manure, broken glass, construction materials and more. One had 5 bales of cotton, another had 7 empty metal barrels; these left no place for a rider. He walked and struggled to move the load and keep it upright. Another had driver and two passengers, a child in front and a woman on the back."
● "Hospital corridor was dark, nurses in long filthy coats, doctor dispensed 2 kind of white pills, took blood pressure reading, wrote long report to my Missouri doctor - in Chinese characters! But the price was right: hospital, doctor, nurse, bare emergency room and pills - total charge: 35 cents!
● "Half raw beef hanging in street from back of an old dirty truck; flies, street dust, no wrapping paper or plastic. Eggs bought by weight, money tossed into ancient wooden cash box, no lid. Delicacy: "thousand year eggs" (2-3 months, actually) packed with black mud and white lime which "cooked" them.
● "Eating fish, chicken, duck, pork; milk for coffee only. (Babies get no milk after weaning at age 2 years or more.) Bountiful cooked greenery daily. Banquet treat: boiled watermelon opened at one end, seeds removed, chunks served in shell, steaming."
I wonder if China really can be ready for the Olympics.