Reflections on a changing China on a bus to Ayutthaya

A few days ago I took a day tour by bus from Bangkok to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. On the bus were seven young travelers from China (not traveling together), along with three other Canadians, a French woman and four people from Myanmar.

I am just old enough that had I been born in China, I could have been one of the youngest Red Guards in the Cultural  Revolution that engulfed China for a decade beginning in 1966.

When I traveled on my Long Trip between 1977-1980, China was closed to independent backpackers. One could go in on a packaged group,  and there were not many at the time, but that was it. I joined the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in September 1981.

Toward the end of 1981, China first allowed independent travelers to enter China on their own, through agents based in Hong Kong. On my way to my first overseas posting to India in 1983, I went through Hong Kong, and spent a month on my own in China, entering through Macau, and going by local transport to Guangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo, Changsha , Chengdu,  Xian, Datong and Beijing. It was a fascinating, if tough and challenging, insight into a vast country just beginning to engage again with the outside world.

In late 1985, I finished my posting in India, and from 1985-1988, I was a project officer on Canada’s recently established development assistance program with China. In 1986, I was assigned on temporary duty to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing . Towards the end of my stay, I went on an agricultural project mission to Inner Mongolia. We went first to Hohhot, then to Xilinhot around one of the least degraded grasslands,  then on to Xi ujimqin Xi, and finally to the  village of Ershan Bolog. We were well treated as official guests. Incidentally, that mission to InnerMongolia was among the best experiences of my entire career.

Following the end of the mission I was dropped off by official vehicle at the railway station in Baotou. The juxtaposition between  my official guest status of the Peoples Republic, and cramming onto the multi hour, hyper crowded “hard stand”  train journey to Yinchuan in Ningxia is difficult to overstate. From there I went overland to industrial Lanzhou, then to Xining, then to what was then the end of the railway line at Golmud  in Qinghai. From Golmud it was a tough two day bus  through the Kunlun Shan and Tanggula Shan mountain ranges across the high Tibetan plateau to Lhasa. Tibet had been opened to independent travel less than two years earlier.  After a few days in Lhasa, five of us chartered a car to take us over the next four days to  visit the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, shigatse, tingri, and down through the main Himalayan range to the border town of Zhangmu.  the following day I walked across the border and continued by bus to Kathmandu. The journey from Tingri to Kathmandu is one of the greatest road journeys in the world.

In 1988, I was on another project mission to Beijing and Hangzhou.  After the mission, I took a few weeks off to travel around the minority areas of Yunnan, the flew up to Lanzhou and went along the Silk Road to Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi and Heaven Lake. In comparison to my first visit in 1983, China was a country on the move and the pace of change, at least in the major cities, was accelerating.

During my year of self funded leave in 1992-1993 (described under Trip Around the World on this website) I stayed in Beijing in early December 1992 with a work colleague in Beijing for a few days (Thank you YC Pan), before taking the Trans-Mongolian Railway in winter to Moscow.

I was not to visit China again until a few months ago going into, and coming out of, North Korea. Beijing is now un-recognizable. In the 1980s Beijing was still a city in a developing country.   In 1983 the majority of citizens in Beijing were still wearing Mao suits. Now it is a developed modern city. The creation of a large Chinese middle class is one of the great global economic achievements of the last 30 years.

In 1995 China began to allow its citizens to travel internationally without restrictions. For at least a decade now, I have occasionally seen young Chinese traveling in different places. Now I see them in ever larger numbers, and in ever more places around the world.

I was fortunate to be born in Canada at a time when, if I had some money and decided to make it a priority, I had the ability to go backpacking internationally. Chinese now in their fifties like me, did not have that opportunity.  Now young Chinese born in the 1980s and 1990s have a similar chance to young Canadians to expand their horizons and explore the world if they so wish.

If you are one of the young Chinese travelers on the bus who wrote down my website at the top of the temple at Ayutthaya, this blog entry was inspired by you.