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On Your Own In China

On Your Own In China

Travel guide published in 1984

I wrote this book in 1983, at a time when China was just opening up to a brand of tourism that allowed people to step out of the China Travel Service control bubble. But at the time, only a handful of places were open, and very few people had actually passed through these tourist trails.

As a journalist based in Beijing and working for the London Daily Telegraph, I used to travel as much as I could, and visited all of China’s provinces except for Ningxia and Guizhou. The food was terrible, the sense of social uniformity was stifling, the evidence of the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, then just finished, was distressing. But ah, (to pick an incident at random), how extraordinary it was in 1981 to sing and play my guitar by candlelight in the Fuzhou city worker’s retirement home, alternating songs with an eight year boy singing keening Fuzhou opera melodies with frightening accuracy and emotion. The old people sat on their bunk beds around us and watched and applauded. They had never heard anything like it. I hope the kid went on to be a professional singer. He would not be 28 years old (in 2001). We were the first foreign visitors into Fujian province, we were told since … 1949? Were there ever any Soviet experts through here? Who knew? But I felt privileged by the extraordinariness of the experience.

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