Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Unique tour gave cyclists glimpse behind Iron Curtain

American Youth Hostels Inc. and a similar group, The All-China Youth Federation, planned for two years and finally made it possible for bicyclists to visit mainland China.

When I learned that a trip was scheduled, I applied for space in this 16-person, 11-day experience behind the Iron Curtain.

In 1949 the Communist-dominated People’s Republic of China controlled mainland China. The government expelled the Christian missionaries, ousted the former rulers and forbade intruders - even close family relatives. No one entered or left China. No photographers, reporters, athletes, buyers, mail or newspapers went through those "closed" doors. Almost a billion human beings - a fourth of the world’s population - were not seen or heard for 20 years!

Our bicycling tour was in 1981, nine years after U.S. pingpong champions were the first outsiders permitted to go behind the Iron Curtain.

I was apprehensive when we were required to wait for hours and to hand over our passports before boarding a beautiful old prewar boat to go up the Pearl River delta.

The boat was a beauty. It was made before the revolution with mahogany woodwork and furniture and large comfortable beds, marks that spoke of long-gone elegance.

We visited with dozens of English-speaking Chinese tourists going to visit their mainland relatives for the first time. They were laden with unwrapped gifts; almost every couple carried a new General Electric fan, family photographs and other treasures.

The children of 1949, if living, would be 20 years old or older!

Across the Pearl River I saw lighted factories operating on 24-hour shifts.

I was awakened when the boat stopped. There was no noise. It was a long stop - probably at the border because a kind of barricade kept me from seeing anything except the factories on the opposite side of the river. The next time I was awake, we were slowly coming into the dock.

Breakfast would be served with all 16 of us around a long table. As we waited, our trip leader reviewed some points of interest we might visit: a silk factory, the paper-cutting girls, a bicycle factory, a ceramics factory, etc.

All 16 of us voted to go to the bicycle factory, but that was not mentioned again. We discovered that they bought black, diamond-frame, Taiwan-made bicycles from Japan!

Only a few voted to go to the ceramics factory and to watch the paper cutters, but we went to watch both! Obviously the itinerary was set in stone and the voting was a farce.

Our American leader reminded the women that we should be fully dressed but that cycle shorts were permitted when we were cycling. Male and female interpreters from Hong Kong were introduced and would be with us constantly. Thermos bottles of boiling hot water would be outside our hotel doors each morning. We had to cool it for our bike bottles. We were warned to have no food in our rooms and to close outside doors lest we attract rats - but that’s a story for later.

A truck would follow us, and occasionally a tired biker might ride - but not I! At age 61, I was the oldest woman in the group but the most experienced in bike touring. Our cycling day averaged less than 30 miles.

We were transported by bus - without bikes - up a mountainside for lunch in a monastery, but four young fellows from California rode up the mountain to prove they could do it!

My injuries were not serious when a woman, drafting me, slammed into the rear wheel of my bike and we both went down in the muddy bike path - more about that next Monday.

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